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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Wonderful World of Disney? See the dark side in Manbites’ Season Opener

Manbites Dog Theater opened its 30th season (!) last night with a strange, compelling little play with a big long title: A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, by Lucas Hnath. Got that? Hereafter to be referred to as Walt. The play was first produced at Soho Rep in 2013; at Manbites, it is a co-production with StreetSigns, and is directed by Joseph Megel.

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Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney in Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, directed by Joseph Megel. At Manbites Dog Theater through Oct. 1, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

It is not beside the point that Hnath, whose age does not seem to be anywhere on the internet, but I guessitmate to be 30ish, grew up in Orlando, Florida. There’s no doubt that would make for a different view of Walt Disney than that of a child who grew up conflating Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, and who looked forward all week to “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights.  I suspect that Hnath’s is an accurate portrayal of the man who Disneyfied America: In Hnath’s play, Walt Disney is not a benign character.

Instead, he’s a casually cruel narcissist, or perhaps more accurately, a megalomaniac. The play’s characters are Walt, his brother Roy, Walt’s daughter (unnamed) and her husband Ron, and they are played here by a tight foursome of some of the Triangle’s strong actors, led by Derrick Ivey. Director Joseph Megel, in his inimitable way, coaxes maximum human feeling out of the cerebral script–and quite a few unexpected laughs.

As its title indicates, Walt‘s device is to cloak itself as a reading of a screenplay: everyone flips through pages in big black notebooks, and the shot directions form part of each speech, many of which are chopped sentence fragments. Although Hnath uses the characters to make larger points about families, personal power, imagination and mad ambition, legalized theft, the inorganic making of sanitized pretend-places, the immortality of ideas and the inescapability of death even for the “most important” people, Megel disallows caricaturization. Never are his characters mere signifiers for the playwright’s abundant ideas.

Megel has many fine qualities as a director–pacing, timimg, tone, choice of material and actors–but it is his insistence on the humanity of all the figures on the boards that is most important to the power of his work. Like Manbites’ artistic director Jeff Storer, Megel has a heart big enough to encompass the realness of all sorts of people–while turning them inside out and revealing their pitiful flaws and awful fears, along with their strengths and glories.

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Elisabeth Lewis Corley, left, as Roy Disney and Derrick Ivey as Walt. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Derrick Ivey continues to surpass himself. He exudes charisma, even as his Walt reveals the nastiness behind the public persona, and he contrives to look just like Disney. Elisabeth Lewis Corley, despite being undeniably female, gives an affecting performance as Roy Disney, Walt’s bitterly loyal make-it-happen man and kicking post. The excellent Lakeisha Coffey is under-utilized here, but sizzles in her key speech, and David Berberian is wonderful as her sweet but dumb husband. Victoria Ralston reinforced their characters with telling costuming. The excellent set by Sonya Leigh Drum is augmented by Joseph Amodei’s video and sound design, and Andrew Parks’ lighting.

Walt is another don’t-miss-this production from Manbites–and a well-timed cautionary tale about a forceful man with outsized ambitions and a bottomless well of self-regard.

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David Berberian, left, as Walt’s son-in-law, and Lakeisha Coffey, right, as Walt’s daughter, with Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney, on Sonya Leigh Drum’s sharp set at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney runs through October 1, 2016, at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham. Tickets here.

You Don’t Know the Troubles I Seen: brownsville song (b-side for tray), at Manbites Dog Theater

Every one has troubles and sorrows, and generally it is difficult to find a perspective where your own don’t look like the biggest, worst ones. The current show at Manbites Dog may be able to help you with that. Kimber Lee‘s brownsville song (b-side for tray) takes place in a world of trouble, right here in the USA, a world you may know some facts about, but may not have considered with full empathy. Another black kid killed, two lines in the paper, let’s move on. Kimber Lee says, time to turn the record over, play the other side.

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After yet another murder, the rest of the family must cope, take strength from each other, and struggle to hold on. Front: Lena (Lakeisha Coffey), Dee (Gabrielle Scales). Rear: Merrell (Wanda B. Jin), Tray (Ron Lee McGill), Junior (Lazarus Simmons). in Manbites Dog Theater’s production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Directed by Jeff Storer. February 25 – March 12, 2016. Photo: Ed Hunt.

Of all the things theatre is good for, its ability to provoke empathy is the most important. When Theatre holds up its mirror, and you see yourself reflected, that’s good and necessary, but more piercing are the views when the mirror is tilted away from you, to show places, people and truths not accessible to you directly. brownsville song is a kind of protest art, and like all protest art, its first demand is that you open your heart to the pain of others. In a post-show conversation on opening night, actor Wanda B. Jin spoke of catharsis–another fundamental function of theatre–and certainly there occurs here a kind of purification through suffering. The viewer, however, may not feel cleansed of anything but complacency, although if the world depicted is your world, you might feel vindicated in your rage.

Yes, it is tough, but it is first-rate. In the hands of a lesser director than Jeff Storer, it could be too painful, or worse, two-dimensional. Storer, who first saw this work at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, brings his characters into full dimensionality, full humanity: they are not dismissible. They are lovable: Grandmother Lena, raising her dead son’s two children by different mothers; teenage Tray, who wants to escape the gangs and drugs and whose every day is a walk with danger; baby sister Dee, abandoned by her mother who went off in search of a fix; that same mother, trying to make a comeback; Junior, another young man almost lost–not factoids, but people, from whom the play, the director and the actors will not allow a turning away. You feel the tragedy of Tray’s death–outlined in the opening scene by Lena (Lakeisha Coffey, magisterial, and trembling with fury)–approaching like a freight train, and like the characters, you can’t avoid it. Even more powerful, though, is the characters’ delicate rapprochement with hope, just enough hope to allow endurance.

This is a remarkable piece of theatre, and such a cogent production requires the passionate involvement of many people. Derrick Ivey designed another of his emotionally resonant, bare bones sets, which designer Andrew Parks has enhanced with some very fine lighting (note especially the “cell block” shadows on the back wall, and the way Junior is made to nearly disappear). Shelby Hahn’s minimal sound design further adds to the sense of place. The script is written is a sort of free-form poetry, and director Storer and the actors had to find its rhythms, cadences and points of emphasis. Lakeisha Coffey’s sense of timing is already well known and admired, but she takes her craft to a new level in this production. Wanda B. Jin as Merrell, the bad mother, was a tiny bit stiff on opening night, but gradually settled into this scarifying role. Lazarus Simmons as Junior plays his crucial scene with nuance and control. Ron Lee McGill as Tray carries the show (although in places he was a bit hard to hear). He’s a teenager–but he’s the man of the house. His sense of responsibility never lets him get too far from the needs of his grandmother and sister, he is determined to hold on to the family, but you feel him surging against the restraints imposed by the world outside the family. The role requires a wide range of emotion and action, and McGill fills it well.

The ensemble is completed by 14-year-old Gabrielle Scales, a student (of Carl Martin’s, who was a student of Jeff Storer’s at Duke) at the Durham School of the Arts, in her first professional production. She was astonishing in her portrayal of Dee, staying right in the moment on stage, her face a continuously changing landscape of feeling. We can hope that this wrenching production does not quench her desire to act.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues at Manbites Dog Theater through March 12. Tickets here. On view in the lobby gallery are the striking paintings by Cosmo Whyte which were used to illustrate Renée Alexander Craft’s lovely children’s book, I Will Love You Everywhere Always (for sale at the desk) and the production’s program.

 

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Tray (Ron Lee McGill), a loving, responsible brother to his emotionally fragile sister Dee (Gabrielle Scales), in Manbites Dog’s production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

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