Theater review: ‘Through the Night’ at Geffen Playhouse
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An artist’s signature strength is often intimately bound up with a recurring weakness. The same quality that distinguishes a work can, when the proportions are slightly off, topple its effectiveness.
Playwright and performer Daniel Beaty derives much of his power from his deeply felt commitment to contextualize—historically and communally—contemporary African American struggle. This fervent conviction pervades “Through the Night,” his solo piece compassionately tracking a cross-section of troubled urban black men and the women who are their backbone.
But equally in evidence in this well-intentioned “soul aria,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, is the earnestness that detracted somewhat from the originality of “Emergency,” his play about a 400-year-old slave ship mysteriously surfacing in New York harbor, where a crowd has drawn to ogle and comment. Here, in his latest effort, drama slides into outreach in a manner that flirts dangerously with daytime television—both soap opera and issue-laden talk show.
The central figure of “Through the Night” is Eric, an intellectually precocious boy who spends much of his time in his father’s health food store dreaming up herbal remedies for the customers. The teas he brews taste awful, but everyone drinks them because they think the son of Mr. Rogers (the name of this neighborly man can hardly be accidental) is a marvel and they’ll take whatever help they can get.
Dre, who was recently hired at the shop even though the business is failing, is an ex-con with a pregnant girlfriend and limited prospects. The Bishop is a diabetic and a junk-food junkie, whose overachieving son has a secret this preacher doesn’t want to know about. ‘Twon, a student once relegated to special ed, is heading to Morehouse, but will he have the courage not to stand in the way of his own dreams?
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright (who also directed “Emergency” at the Geffen in 2008), this presentation of ‘Through the Night,” a co-production with New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre, has a tidy elegance thanks to Alexander V. Nichols (sets, lighting and projections) and Lindsay Jones (original music and sound). Beaty has clearly found in Randolph-Wright a graceful theatrical collaborator, yet his playwriting cries out for someone who can help him synthesize his vision into a more cohesive style.
Awkward transitions hint at unsettled artistic impulses. Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” is a palpable influence. So too is the raw lyricism of Dael Orlandersmith (especially her coming-of-age ghetto meditation “The Gimmick”) and the talking-heads documentary explorations of Anna Deavere Smith. At times, the work drops everything to bust into poetry slam mode.
Beaty tries to package these disparate elements into a traditionally plotted dramatic yarn. Conflicts are pushed to crises, connections among characters crisscross freely and loose ends dangle teasingly before getting tied. The stories are moving and the scars of the men seem real. But the theatrical drawing has the contrived feeling of a demonstration—a compendium of heartfelt lessons whose ultimate value is more civic than creative.
This isn’t to say that the characterizations aren’t touched by brute reality. Although caricature does come into play (why do solo artists always adopt a sentimental baby voice for children?), there are wrenching glimpses throughout of the way men cope when loss is unavoidable. These are situations that play to Beaty’s strength as a performer, which involves crescendos of moral force rather than diminuendos of psychological nuance.
Mr. Rogers, who’s not having much success in teaching the community that “traditional soul food is death food,” riffs on his gratitude to the women who have supported him in the conviction that “a black man needs something he owns to overcome a history of being property.” Dre, learning dire medical news that affects his family, comes to realize that his love outshines his disease, even though the guilt and self-pity will never go away. And Eric, desperate to relieve the ubiquitous suffering around him, will risk everything to discover that he’s meant to be ‘the future not the sacrifice.’
It’s impossible not to cheer Beaty on his important mission. But it would be remiss not to urge this talented theatrical voice to be as conscientious about form as he is about content.
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‘Through the Night,’ Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays- Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 4.
$64 -$69. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Photos of Daniel Beaty by Sherry Rubel Photography