BWW Review: Jeff Augustin's THE NEW ENGLANDERS Seeks To Expand The Perception of Stage Characters of Color
An African-American father fixes his mixed-race daughter's hair as she asks why there were so many silent moments in the film they just watched.
"White people love to watch other sad white people silently live their lives," he explains. "They find it moving."
"Do we ever get to be sad?" she asks.
"No. We can only to teach lessons on race and class. Be victims who overcome. We never get to just live... Cause white people can't imagine our lives beyond the color of our skin. They can't imagine that we bake cakes and have daddy issues."
As explained in his program notes, playwright Jeff Augustin moved from Miami to attend college in Boston; envisioning New England as a liberal mecca where he could pursue his American Dream while freely exploring his identity. What he found was a part of the country he describes as "deeply steeped in whiteness," where people of color are regarded only in terms of their race-related experiences, rather than people living the full spectrum of human existence.
The characters in his gently-humorous drama, The New Englanders, certainly don't ignore their racial identities (in fact, they are specifically spelled out by the playwright in his script notes), but the situations involved (a rebellious teen, a shaky marriage, the debate over which wine is proper to drink on the front porch during which season) are not fueled by skin color.
The aforementioned father is Aaron (Teagle F. Bougere), the primary stay-at-home parent of 17-year-old Eisa (Kara Young). His white and Jewish husband, and Eisa's other father, Samuel (Patrick Breen), spends a good deal of time on the road as a salesman, and much is made of scheduling daddy/daughter evenings and date nights for the fathers when he's back in their quaint little town.
Already accepted by NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Eisa may be just going through the motions in her senior year of high school. When a teacher (Crystal Finn) assigns her class to create a vision board representing their goals for future years, Eisa gets an F for handing in a blank board, saying it's limiting to declare such goals as a teenager. Young gives a convincingly passionate performance in a scene where Eisa defends her interpretation of the assignment, but the conflict between her and the teacher escalates to a situation that lacks credibility.
Meanwhile, Aaron's increasingly perfunctory relationship with Samuel is interrupted by a visit from an ex (Javier Muñoz), who is in need of help. The only character seeming to be conflict free is Eisa's classmate Atlas (Adam Langdon), a grass dealer at the local Chuck E. Cheese.
Under Saheem Ali's direction, the fine ensemble does some very good scene work, but even at 100 minutes, The New Englanders seems underwritten and repetitive. Perhaps those who are moved by dramas where "people silently live their lives" will find have a more emotional reaction, but while this reviewer can admire and advocate for the mission to expand the ways in which characters of color are represented on stage, he found little beyond the surface storytelling.