“If you don’t start any trouble, there won’ BE any trouble,” declares a godlike voice over the PR system at a juvenile delinquent correctional center. “Every year, an estimated 195,000 young people are admitted to detention facilities nationwide, and approximately 15,600 are held on any given night… centers are used for short-term confinement, after a youth has been arrested, but before a court has determined the youth’s innocence or guilt.” (The Annie E. Casey Foundation)
Rowdy young Black men stream into mandatory English class. Each yellow uniform has been “adjusted” to personal statement. One has pants rolled up at the cuffs, another strategic rips, another a crop top. The “students” move like break dancers, loose and rhythmic; physically and derisively jabbing at one another.
Teacher, Mr. Isaiah (Biko Eisen-Martin), presents as one of them. His class doesn’t suspect the clean cut man not much older than they are shares an abusive, deprived background, nor do they (or we) have an inkling about the guilt that drives him. Distrust is organic. Isaiah is determined to get through, to help those he can get off the streets to a future of more than survival. It’s an uphill battle.
Leon Addison Brown and Biko Eisen-Martin
An essay on Othello was assigned. Having been isolated and long suffering in their eyes, the Moor was a character to whom the young men could relate. Poems about him are performed to stomping, clapping, mouth-sound rhythms. The rap is good. Connection is established, attention paid. It’s obvious that competition is based on more than just the exercise. A fight breaks out and is quelled.
Isaiah is an unusually motivated and caring educator, but, at every turn, comes up against penal bureaucracy in the form of supervisor Mr. Cartwright (Leon Addison Brown) and the proverbial system. No budget for books, no time/patience to discuss individual student issues, no – sympathy. Lack of attention and intervention may have predicated tragedy. Isaiah feels culpable. He tried, but not enough. Veteran Cartwright takes no responsibility. Scarred (literally) and steeled, he warns the idealist of inevitable failure. “You’re getting soft, letting those boys make you weak!…”
“Anyone who does anything stupid today, this is your last day!” the PR system warns.
Mourning is angry, death a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Frustration and provocation lead to minor violence, class banishment, threats. Agonizing, Isaiah briefly loses it. Getting students to see the social worker is extremely difficult. One traumatized young man keeps his head down neither talking nor participating for weeks despite the effort of peers.
Biko Eisen-Martin, Dharon Jones, Dario Vazquez, Travis Raeburn, Shakur Tolliver, and Essence Lotus
Whatever their differences/prejudices the group is bonded by common experience. Everyone’s usual resistant behavior becomes extreme, allegiances and feuds grow more apparent. It’s like watching firecrackers dropped into a room, intermittently exploding, creating pinball reactions. Language is harsh, events heart wrenching – and common.
“Do not test us because you’ll lose,” blares the PR .
Over time, we learn each boy’s circumstances, history, and crime as Isaiah chips away. To the playwright’s credit, information emerges gradually and in context. Kevin (Shakur Tolliver) is guilty of having committed a defensive crime. The record doesn’t bother to stipulate that. He’s a natural leader, the class star. Antoine (Dharon Jones) is smart, intense and a good artist. He keeps to himself. Dee (Essence Lotus) is flamboyantly gay and proud. He takes what the others dish out and gives back in kind. Here’s well defended tenderness. A miracle it exists.
Bashir’s (Travis Raeburn) answer to everything is the violence to which he’s accustomed. Taking others down gives him temporary satisfaction. Jamal (Dario Vazquez) does what he thinks he must for his family and him to survive, a dirty secret incurring the fury of those it affects. He attempts acting as peacekeeper. Eddie (Ed Ventura) is an alcoholic. He falls deeply asleep in every class. Liquor dulls or aids blackout but doesn’t ameliorate the problem at home.
Dario Vazquez, Essence Lotus, Dharon Jones, Ed Ventura, and Travis Raeburn
There’s drug use and selling, sexual abuse, robbery, abandonment, poverty… None is over embroidered, none soft peddled. Every word that comes out of these boys’ mouths rings real. A reprehensible system creates damaged human beings, repeat offenders, societal outcasts. What occurs before is endemic. The playwright’s specificity keeps anyone from seeming like a stereotype. It’s THESE young men with whom we’re concerned. Isaiah also suffers. There are incremental (believable) changes, though not before more tragedy.
Playwright Donja R. Love, “Black, Queer, living with HIV, and thriving,” has written a powerful, crackling, taut piece of theater with its guts on display. Characters, relationships, and arcs work wonderfully. Ninety-five percent of it is riveting. Unfortunately, the author’s choice of fantasy ending somewhat diminishes what proceeded, softening the blow instead of letting us exit in turmoil.
Acting is extraordinary. Every performer holds his own. Chemistry is terrific.
Biko Eisen-Martin and Dharon Jones
Director Whitney White does a masterful job with both vibrant character portrayal and wildly imaginative physical acting. Ensemble focus is unbroken. Edge-of-one’s -seat pacing is terrific.
Fight choreography by UnkleDave’s Fight-House is some of the most realistic I’ve seen – hard, fast and fitting of street-bred aggression.
Adam Rigg’s scenic design manages to cross over between the regimented correctional facility and allusions of things to come.
Costumes by Qween Jean – predominantly the young men’s self-altered uniforms (in accordance with character) – are inspired. Original music by Mauricio Escamilla drives without assaulting.
A call out to brilliant casting by The Telsey Office/Destiny Lilly, CSA.
Photos by Daniel J. Vasquez
Opening: Biko Eisen-Martin, Dario Vazquez, Dharon Jones, Essence Lotus, Ed Ventura, and Travis Raeburn
MCC Theater presents
soft by Donja R. Love
Directed by Whitney White
EXTENDED THROUGH SUNDAY JULY 10, 2022
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space – Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater
511 West 52nd Street