When Lives Matter: The Play
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through January 22
It may be one of the unintended consequences of the 2017 Presidential Ascension of the Infernal One that we have a chance to witness the blooming of art in protest and an attempt to confront and shake up the new status quo. If we are lucky, there will be many plays like playwright/director Monti Washington’s passionate and thought-provoking meditation on race in the U.S., including ruminations on the philosophy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Washington’s play is set in Chicago, and he himself portrays Harrison, a young paralegal who is on the cusp of passing the bar exam so he can become a criminal defense attorney. Harrison also takes care of his younger brother Cameron (Kyle Blakely), who is in high school and wants to become a school teacher, but chafes under his older brother’s rigid rules and demands that he too go to grad school and become a lawyer.
Cameron also enjoys spending time on the streets with his buds, a pair of thugs who dabble in drugs and guns. Harrison tries to keep his brother on the straight and narrow — but the teen is the textbook definition of “at risk,” and after he’s roughed up by a bigoted cop (Mark Young), the human cost of racism and of the badly frayed relations between black and white lives become evident. The narrative is bracketed by scenes from a mock TV talking-heads news program, in which a series of experts from the Left and the Right discuss racism in America.
One can see how strong advocates on both sides might find some of Washington’s arguments to be slightly naïve and superficial — but his attempt to articulate the dramatic issues are commendable, more so for being handled with well-executed warmth and passion. That someone is willing to put the arguments on the table at all is in itself praiseworthy — and Washington also manages to craft a dynamic production that boasts some good acting work. His staging is urgent and taut, though we occasionally wish additional attention had been paid to diction problems, as some lines are occasionally mumbled or swallowed.
The performances are otherwise moving and organic. Washington cuts a strong, passionate figure as the driven Harrison, and is particularly affecting when he starts to suspect that his attempts to assimilate into white society may be construed as “Uncle Tom-ism.” Blakely’s fiery turn as Cameron is tragically moving, as he degenerates from student to thug.
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m.; through January 22. http://whenlivesmattertheplay.bpt.me. Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.