When President Obama spoke in Tucson, Ariz., this week, addressing the grieving citizens of that community in the wake of the recent shootings there, he spoke about the need for unity over division, for solidarity over discord. Public discourse was swept up in politics and punditry, silencing the stories of lives lost and fought. The president was addressing the citizens of Tuscon, for sure, but he was speaking to the country as well.
In viewing the Subversive Theatre's current production of Oyamo's "I Am a Man," one cannot help but draw a thick line from the president's speech to the men of Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, depicted in this riveting play.
The story concerns one man's fight for racial and social justice in that city, where a garbage worker strike threatens the safety of its unionized laborers, already embroiled in the divergent civil rights philosophies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Annette Daniels-Taylor's direction captures the integrity of these men's stories, employing a number of theatrical devices that collectively work in harmony. In other hands, these dramatic layers might have appeared thrown together or disconnected, but here they complement not only each other, but also the text.
A large screen projects moving photographs depicting the city of Memphis, its citizens and their mounting heaps of trash. Video designer Brian Milbrand's grids of images are styled and well-edited, transitioning with the scene's blocking in ways that would be distracting in almost any configuration. They do the journalistic work of a wartime photographer, exposing the dirty and shaming truths of society's wars.
The performances of Peter Johnson as leading union worker T.O. Jones and Shantinna Moore as his wife, Alice Mae, are layered and powerful. Their explosive argument in Act One is a beautifully staged dialogue, one where Moore's commanding stage presence is as lyrical as it is imposing. Supporting roles played by Leon S. Copeland Jr., Jack Agugliaro and Harold Luther White are exciting to watch and never dull.
As the nameless Bluesman, Ernest "Buzzy" Griffin is the show's subconscious. He is on stage the entire time, dressed in a white civil worker's uniform, with harmonica in hand. He has probably no more than five lines, and yet he attracts your attention at every dramatic pause. His wisecracks, stern looks and bluesy bravado combine to editorialize the passionate, enraged, foolish, desperate actions of these polarizing figures.
Other supporting performances are all over the map, but generally do what they need to.
It cannot go unmentioned that there were significant technical snafus on opening night. When actors lose their lines, lighting cues come and go without prompt, and scene transitions appear entirely unrehearsed, things sort of unraveled. These things iron out with time.
Ultimately, this is a play that calls for an audience's attention. In this week, when we are reminded of the civil wars fought on the home front, it is a play that reminds us what it means to stand up and be counted.
> Theater Review
"I Am a Man"
Review: 3 stars Out of 4
Drama presented by Subversive Theatre through Feb. 5 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. For tickets and information, call 408-0499 or visit www.subversivetheatre.org.