If you see one show this season, go see SEED. If you are a Harlem resident, you have absolutely no excuse not to see it. The show is playing at the National Black Theatre on 126th and 5th Ave right across the street from Applebees. This new play by Radha Blank is produced by the Classical Theatre of Harlem in conjunction with the Hip Hop Theatre Festival (you will see their colorful van outside). Blank calls her play “a love letter to Harlem.” True to her proclamation, this play is set right on these very streets, and shows us a poetically defined Harlem with rich characters and a story that engages your heart and mind.
Niegel Smith’s smart direction pulls in theatrical elements that create a vivid setting. The subway announcement sounds familiar but has been infused with a more specific, pernicious personality. A projection screen plays video of Harlem locals overlaid with silhouetted figures walking by as if they are walking right out of Marcus Garvey Park into the theater. Demonstrating his fearlessness for complex and racially charged subject matter with productions like Neighbors at the Public Theatre last year, Smith skillfully tackles difficult subjects like incarceration, gentrification, and thug identity.
A logical pick for the Classical Theatre of Harlem, Blank’s language soars with rhythm and intricate rhyme schemes. Each character has a distinctive style and language. While Anne, played by Bridgit Antoinette Evans tries to encourage the young Chee Chee to find an alternate to the “n” word, Pernell Walker as the incarcerate Rashawn, “the daughter of Jackie and Crack,” rocks herself, through childhood melody “Ebony girl, pretty black pearl, sweetest little [gasp] in the whole wide world.” One of the most memorable moments was when Jocelyn Bioh, as Latonya the Duane Reade employee behind the checkout counter delivers a rapid fire monologue in verse composed of the phrases she uses repeatedly in her mundane job. “Price check, this is $3.49, you still want dis miss?” Their unique voices compose an organic symphony of Harlem that emerges from behind the audience risers, off stage, through verse and sharp dialogue.
The play calls into question the responsibility of a social worker to intervene in potentially dangerous or harmful situations in parent-child relationships. The protagonist Anne Colleen Simpson is a new kind of hero. Though she is motivated by maintaining her previous professional glory and documenting it in a memoir of her achievements, she is still haunted by the failures of her past, namely her inability to save Rashawn from her own sordid fate. Upon befriending Chee Chee, she is offered a second chance at redemption for one gifted child who is tempted to “step in the game of thug.” Anne struggles with the knowledge that Latonya, Chee Chee’s mother is unable to see her own child’s potential. She fights back against Anne’s argument that he needs a positive role model as her cell phone ringtone sounds a thick rap, “I hate you so much.” Still Bioh creates a compelling portrait of a woman who used to believe that her family could be the “Huxtables of the Washington Projects.” The love story of Twan and Latonya rings with youthful infatuation and the legacy of early parenthood.
At some moments of high conflict or drama, the audience would break out in nervous laughter at the reflection of the behavior they recognize all too well. We wrestled with the question of how do you distinguish between a threat of sticking your nose into someone else’s (potentially dangerous) business, and a real opportunity to help? Anne is a woman who prides herself on knowing the difference. Her inability to be passive is an inspiration to all of us to recognize when a moment of concerned citizenship can turn into a something more. With an impressive ensemble, powerful performances, and pitch-perfect casting, SEED delivers a cunning blend of perspectives from across the fractured landscape of Harlem.
SEED plays September 6 – October 9, 2011 at The National Black Theatre- 2033 5th Avenue Btw 125th St & 126th St. Tickets are $48 for general admission, and $20 for students and seniors. Call 866-811-4111 or order online at http://www.seedtheplay.com