Howard L. Craft’s New Play at Manbites: More Miraculous than Mundane

Durham playwright Howard L. Craft has leapt to a higher level of prowess with The Miraculous and the Mundane, his new two-act piece now in a workshop production at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater, in association with StreetSigns. This four-character play deals with a lot of life’s hard stuff, but–although its notes and chords are words and sentences–its affect is much like that of a large complex piece of music. The sounds, the rhythms, the undertones and overtones, the minor chords top-dressed with flowers of laughter, the modulations and sudden reversals of tempi and mood: all are so richly orchestrated that you could just listen to the sounds and get to their purport, if not to the details of this story. It is one hell of a piece of writing, and director Joseph Megel, continuing his multi-play relationship with Craft and his work, knows just what to do with it.

Unlike Craft’s FREIGHT, which manipulates time and space to tell of the sameness of a Black man’s fate in America over many decades, The Miraculous and the Mundane takes place in this here and now. It is set in the Durham of today, and it shows a Black family grappling with a fate unconnected to race: Dementia.

Percy & Chloe 3

Trevor Johnson as Percy and Lakeisha Coffey as his daughter Chloe in THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, by Howard L. Craft, in the current workshop production at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

Percy Nelson, scorchingly played by Trevor Johnson (his most vivid and heartfelt performance to date), along with his best friend Bone, portrayed by the completely charming Irving W. Truitt, Jr. (they “go back like Blacks and Cadillacs”), survived the Viet Nam War, where they fought as Marines–but Percy’s losing the battle with memory. He retreats from one scant cover to another, but finally the only one in denial about the presence of the enemy is Bone. Percy’s daughter Chloe faces the facts first, and in this role Lakeisha Coffey once again excels herself. Ron Lee McGill, last seen at Manbites as the struggling brother in brownsville song (b-side for tray), has developed considerably as an actor, and he gives the frustrated, angry, Junior a frantic kind of stoicism, then cracks him right open in a crucial scene. Joseph’s Megel’s astute direction is in evidence here, forcing us to contend with the uncomfortable reality of Junior, who is kind of a jerk until he’s not. Junior takes up a lot of space and keeps the atmosphere edgy and potentially threatening.

Percy & Junior 2

Trevor Johnson, left, as Percy, and Ron Lee McGill as his son Junior, in Howard L. Craft’s new play THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, at Manbites Dog Theater through April 1, 2017. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

In addition to chronicling a brave man’s descent into the hell of dementia, and the concommittant downward suction on his family and friend, The Miraculous and the Mundane limns the freedoms and constrictions of a hard-earned middle-class life on Alston Avenue. After the war, Bone started a car repair shop, and Percy a dry cleaners. They have both done well in business. Percy put his two children through college, has a comfortable house, still runs the cleaners. He mourns his wife, who was killed in a car accident a few years previously. Daughter Chloe (Spelman graduate; MBA), having just received another humiliation from her cheating husband, has come home for a while, and it is she who realizes that something is wrong with Daddy. Coffey gives a powerful performance as the secretive wounded wife/daddy’s girl/frightened good daughter/pissed off sister/caretaker of the father who no longer knows her. She literally vibrates with emotion, and often had me in sympathetic tears.

Junior, a unpromoted bicycle cop with the Durham police, refuses to see Percy’s decline, because he’s just about to lose his home due to an adjustable rate mortgage and the self-deluding thinking that led up to taking it out, and he is focused on getting Daddy to lend him the needed money. He is also married to a white woman, whose father wants to bail them out. So Junior, in addition to having all the issues that come with being a strong father’s junior, is in a terrible squeeze. He’s getting no respect anywhere, and getting nagged at everywhere (none of it his fault, of course), he’s got to satisfy the bank, and he absolutely is not going to take the money from a white man, even though the man’s now family. After a devastating scene of father-son sparring, Percy refuses to lend the money and when Junior storms out, Percy tells Chloe, with disgust, sorrow and a kind of perverse pride, “your brother married a crazy white woman when he could have married Black royalty.”

Now this right here is one of the reasons I love to see a Howard L. Craft play. I cannot walk into a room in real life where anyone would say that as long as I was there–that and quite a few other of the choice lines and small revelations that stand out for their verisimilitude, like bottleneck guitar riffs above the rich thrumming of the textual music in The Miraculous and the Mundane. (There is also an excellent soundtrack by Joseph Amodei, who did the smart lighting, too.) Craft did it with Caleb Calypso, he certainly did it with FREIGHT, and he does it here–he takes me to places and understandings that are not available to me outside of art. The wonderful flip side to that is that the same plays show, to other viewers, a world they know but rarely see depicted on stage. I dare to hope that Howard L. Craft will one day be known as a 21st century August Wilson…perhaps there will even be a Durham cycle of plays.

This is theatre at its most miraculous, not stinting on philosophy, but giving us back the mundane, a little polished up so we can see it better–our little lives projected large, with dramatic incidents as overwhelming as we feel them to be in the privacy of our dogged dailiness. Some–a great deal–of The Miraculous and the Mundane is completely particular to Black people (and thankful I am to peer into that reality and even more to listen to it) but the greater part is simply particular to people. It feels honest, it feels real. After the opening night performance, the actors told me, separately, that the familiar realness was partly why they were able to get the workshop production into such an advanced stage of readiness in a mere two and a half weeks. Craft said that he’d written the story using the people and places and speech patterns he knows–“these are my uncles,” he said of Percy and Bone–and from personal knowledge of the terrible progress of dementia through a family. Since the personal is political, this play is political–but it is not propagandistic, theoretical, conceptual, or speculative. The only question is whether you will be able to get tickets for this limited workshop run, or if you will have to wait for the full production, tentatively scheduled at Manbites Dog Theater early in 2018.

Very highly recommended. Through April 1. Tickets here.

Percy & Chloe 2

Daughter and Daddy: Lakeisha Coffey and Trevor Johnson as Percy and Chloe in THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, by Howard L. Craft, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Ed Hunt.

Keep on Trampin’: Post-apocalypse positivity at Manbites Dog Theater

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Charlie Chaplin’s iconic character, The Tramp, (Rob Jansen) faces the future as a lonely survivor of atomic cataclysm. The Tramp’s New World was developed by Jansen from James Agee’s unproduced screenplay, and is directed at Manbites Dog Theater by Joseph Megel. Through Dec. 19. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

Everybody loves Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, who combined the wisdom of age with that of youth in a series of silent films. It is a little bit harder to love Rob Jansen’s version of The Tramp, in the one-man performance he created from James Agee’s mostly unknown draft of a screenplay. Yes, James Agee. In the early years of the nuclear era, Agee thought Chaplin should revive The Tramp and have him warn the world about the hideous dangers of The Bomb and the madness of Mutual Assured Destruction. Chaplin thought, apparently, that The Tramp wasn’t up to the job in the fast loud post-Modern Times world. So Agee’s screenplay, set in a post-nuclear holocaust world, languished until theater artist Jansen decided to convert it to a stage play.

The Tramp’s New World is directed at Manbites Dog by Joseph Megel, who is well known for his exacting sensitivity, and Megel’s techniques are evident–but they cannot overcome the shortcomings of the script. Jansen has chosen to combine mime with voiced acting and with what are essentially voice-over descriptions of action that has already occurred or is about to occur, making for a lot of unnecessary repetition and confusing back and forth. The play is only 75 minutes; it would probably be better at 50 minutes. (Cut even more, it would make an interesting short piece before, for instance, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.)

Nonetheless, Jansen gives many minutes of sweet charm as he bumbles around the destroyed world. He eventually finds other survivors, which draws him out of the despair of perfect aloneness after the atomic wind dies down. Determined to find joy amidst the destruction, The Tramp rigs clever devices to help us all see the wonders. He even finds a woman and a new-born baby! It’s mythic, but rather on the clunky side. Having lived my entire life with the fear of The Bomb, it seems to me that the play neither mines the fear nor does it expose it to the blazing light of courage.

What it does do successfully is to remind us of the importance, the critical importance, of one person–each person–sowing hugs and hope along the path through the killing fields.

The show continues at Manbites Dog through Dec. 19, with a special rate for theater artists at the Sunday evening performance on the 13th. For tickets and more info:  www.manbitesdogtheater.org or 919.682.3343.

FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. All Aboard!

 

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

 

StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance premiered Howard L. Craft‘s new play on January 9 in Swain Hall on the UNC campus. Nine days into the new year and I have to tell you that the production is likely at the end of the year to be on the short list of year’s best, such is its momentum. This train carries FREIGHT until January 24. Catch it or kick yourself into next year. You can remember that hyperbolic sentence when the play sends up theatrical reviews in one of its many comic moments: “A Five Star Review!!”

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green uses trains to provide transportation for Abel through physical space, but also as a metaphor for travel through time. Playwright Craft, who lives in Durham, has already demonstrated interest in the episodic nature of life, the fluid properties of time, and in heroes and super-heroes, but in this script he commands his ideas and stories with a greatly increased level of sophistication and confidence. Starting with his character’s name–the first man murdered, and by his brother–he makes artistic choices that hit like a blunt instrument or slice like a razor. In FREIGHT, one actor portrays five men named Abel Green who live at different periods over a hundred-year span in the US. Each of these black men tells his dramatic story in a 20-minute segment which glides seamlessly into the next, with echoes from the past sounding in future after future. The script would be fascinating even if it were not loaded with highly quotable lines, and part of what’s fascinating is the way Craft is able to say some very tough things so that even white people can hear them.

“All Negroes are actors by necessity.” So says Abel the Minstrel, who we meet as he hops a freight car circa 1910 to go on to his next gig. We’ll live longer, he says, if we know our lines for whites, but we can do improv with other Negroes. He’s been part of a three-man troupe–another hoofer and a front man who can pass for white–but after a horrific lynching, described in nauseating detail, he finds himself traveling alone. His partner just couldn’t take it any more. But Abel is younger and wants “to have the money not to live like a nigger even I have to play one on stage to get it…I keep dancin’ and smilin’ and they pay me for that.”  Then he quotes Paul Laurence Dunbar: “let the mask hide my eyes.”

This section is the most fully fleshed of the play. It began as Craft’s response to the painting by Rose Piper, Slow Down Freight Train, in the Ackland Art Museum collection. “The Minstrel” was directed by Joseph Megel and acted by J. Alphonse Nicholson, in the Ackland gallery; eventually the minstrel’s tale multiplied into the five incarnations of Abel Green. None of the other sections is lacking–“The Snitch” is particularly strong–but none is quite as thoroughly massaged as “The Minstrel.”

Craft’s writing is finely honed, full of poetry, but J. Alphonse Nicholson breathes life into the still syllables. Nicholson is a natural, which is not to say he is not continually honing his art. Perhaps because he started so young, before his heart had had time to harden and wall itself in, he has an almost uncanny ability to assume the characters he plays. But this performance goes far beyond his previous work. In 99 minutes, he takes on and radiates out the pain of generations and the exquisite philosophic particularity of the individuals who felt it, and every single minute feels true. His memory is prodigious–on opening night I heard one tiny stumble. In addition to being empathically talented, tall, dark and handsome, he can sing, dance and drum. FREIGHT takes on an even greater load of poignancy with this young actor portraying not just the minstrel, but an 80s film actor whose success involves being killed in various ways on-screen by the “white vigilante hero.” I want to say that big, big success is Alphonse Nicholson’s to throw away–but have a few years changed America enough to let him bloom forth? You wouldn’t know it from following the news. Even in the post-performance glow, and now even more, I’m haunted by the idea of this cheerful ambitious young man being torqued or broken by the same cruelties and corruptive associates that account for assorted suicides and other deaths in Craft’s script.

One reason Nicholson has been able to build his skills so rapidly is Joseph Megel, who is as delicate and unflinching in his direction as a neurosurgeon. Megel, the artistic director of StreetSigns and artist-in-residence in performance studies at UNC-CH, directed Nicholson his first time out, in 2009, in Howard L. Craft’s Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders(after nurturing the play at UNC), and later in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot ; also in The Brothers Sizeand in the Activated Art project at the Ackland Museum. So a lot of trust has been built up, over years, among director, actor and playwright. That trust makes this quality of art possible.

Megel and producer Elisabeth Lewis Corley put together a design team who completed the experiential package and transformed the gloomy studio in Swain Hall. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting is very fine, and Eamonn Farrell’s video and sound are essential to powerful fiction of time travel. Marissa Erickson created communicative costuming that also allows Nicholson to morph from Abel to Abel with speed and grace. Derrick Ivey designed the wonderful set with its arches, spans and sliding train cars. You can buy your ticket here.

*An earlier version of this review had erroneously described Caleb Calypso as Craft’s first full-length play. In fact, Craft had written several plays before that, and his earliest full-length work is The House of George, which received a production in 2002. Several of Craft’s works were produced at NCCU before anyone on the other side of the Durham Freeway paid any attention. A new one-act by Craft will be included in the forthcoming REDBIRD festival at the Carrboro ArtsCenter in March, 2015. The Star regrets the error.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey's fine set.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey’s fine set.

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