Brooklyn Is In Him: ANTONIO'S SONG at Contemporary American Theater Festival
At Shepherdstown's July cultural fixture, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the performances are almost always excellent, yet the plays themselves are usually the stars. For those who follow the Festival from year to year, some of the actors will become familiar faces, but the majority of the plays there will always be totally new experiences, about which the playgoer will have heard little or nothing. For this reason a critic is apt to focus on the work more than the performers. Antonio's Song: I Was Dreaming of a Son, however, does not lend itself to any prioritization of work over performer. The Antonio of the title is not only the central character but also the performer, Antonio Edwards Suarez, and the story we are told purports to be that of Mr. Suarez.
This show, then, fits comfortably within the not-unfamiliar format of a single-performer theater piece in which the performer presents his own history - but in this case with a twist: the words here may not be the performer's own. The wordsmithing is credited to Dael Orlandersmith, probably best known for her play Yellowman. Both on the page and in the ear, the lines come across as poetry, albeit a poetry heavily inflected with the accents and cadences of Suarez' particular origins as a black and Latino man growing up in Brooklyn. And Orlandersmith's metier is poetic language inflected with the sound and rhythms of dialect. Hence with this show there will be no practical way to disentangle the contribution of the subject/performer from that of the writer, and no way to determine the extent to which Suarez' story may have been trimmed or augmented to fit the dramatic structure. So I shall not even try, but will instead provisionally treat the account the play gives of Suarez' life as accurate, and attribute the choice of words to him as well.
The tale crystallizes early around one incident: Antonio, a teacher, writer and dancer, in a room he has rented for a few hours to serve as a dance and writing studio, finds himself unexpectedly accompanied by his five-year-old son. Trying to remain in his own headspace while crafting dance moves, he quickly comes up against the reality that young children will grow bored and fidgety in such a place, and demand attention. Antonio loses his temper and begins to rough up his son, screaming abuse. His hands are balled up as fists. And then he stops, wants to embrace his son, but realizes that he has become a "monster" to this child whom he adores. "As I hold him / I look down at my hands / I REALLY look down at my hands / These hands that turned to fists/ The same kind of hands like my mother's/ That / Slapped/ punched MY face / And I think about my voice / My voice that screamed and yelled 'MOTHERFUCKER' / And /I hear my mother's voice/ I NOW have HER voice / My god what did I do? / What the fuck did I do?"
And now of course we are into the story of Antonio's family of origin, and the world of his origin, which has conditioned him to behave this way, which implicitly and explicitly looks to its men to solve problems with violence. We will hear stories of not only the violent mother but the concerted attack by Antonio and his friends on a gay man, and a gangbang sexual initiation, and an understanding that it was expected that he would beat up or kill a violent boyfriend of his sister's.
But there is much more, and better. We also learn of the ways his father protected him at times, of his friend Curtis who did not subscribe to the machismo of the streets but blazed a trail to college for Antonio, of the uncle who lifted from Antonio's shoulders the burden of wreaking vengeance on the sister's boyfriend. We learn of Antonio's initiation into the world of academic achievement and advanced study, at Harvard and in Russia. We also come to see Antonio's story as a tale of intergenerational accumulation of social capital: Antonio's father was, as the script repeatedly characterizes him and many of the boys around Antonio, "fatherless." Antonio was not fatherless, and Antonio's son is not. And Antonio's father, who may not always have shielded him from the mother's violence and hostility, nonetheless does do some things to advance Antonio matriculation at Harvard. Even the mother can legitimately claim some credit. On balance, the picture improves over the generations.
And then at the end, the tale circles back to Antonio and his son. All of these things now are in him, both the good and the bad of Brooklyn and the world of learning and achievement far beyond it. He ends by formulating as best he can, in a sort of dream vision, a way of explaining himself and his contradictions and, in the last line, what Antonio's son should take away from the scary encounter with his imperfect dad.
This is powerful stuff, rendered more powerful by an excellent staging. The set (by Luciana Stecconi) is basic, but it immediately becomes clear that the real function of the set is to provide surfaces for projections by Jared Mezzocchi that are varied, evocative, and thoroughly advance the story. And while a monologue can in the wrong hands begin to pall, Mark Clements' direction and the movement direction/choreography by Alexandra Beller (of course there is dance of a sort in this story of a dancer) keep the eye and the attention engaged.
In conversations I had with Festival-goers who had seen this show, it emerged as the consensus favorite in a strong field. It was my favorite too.
Antonio's Song: I Was Dreaming of a Son, by Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Mark Clements, presented through July 28 as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Studio 112, 92 W. Campus Drive, on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $57-$67, at www.catf.org or 304/876-3473 | 800/999-2283. Adult language and subject matter, some violence discussed and reenacted.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman.