BWW Review: DIVISION STREET at CenterStage
Kudos and thank you to JCC's CenterStage Theatre and playwright Jason Odell Williams for staging the world premiere of DIVISION STREET in the Rochester area. It is a pleasure to participate as a member of the audience on a work of theatre that has not been curated and delivered here. The firsthand original experience of theatre is exciting, illuminating and authentic. Being an inaugural viewer requires a unique mindset and responsibility. It is the difference between being at a birth and receiving a phone call about a birth. Being one step removed from the situation doesn't dampen the joy but the experience is less visceral, and the emotional response is influenced by the enthusiasm or concern expressed by others. What a joy to be at the delivery! In his author notes, like a proud expectant parent, Williams muses about the birth of his play. He writes, "I hope the play makes you laugh, makes you think and feel, but most of all, I hope it entertains you and gets you talking about everything the characters address in the play." From opening night, I am happy to report his hopes fulfilled. The audience responded at curtain with a standing ovation and as they walked out the conversations started.
DIVISION STREET is about racism in America, but it is removed from the divided streets, the ground zero we see on the nightly news. In fact the play begins from the elevated perch of a luxury hotel where Robert (David Andreatta), a white actor, nervously dresses to prepare himself for the Golden Globe Awards for which he has been nominated best supporting actor for portraying a racist cop who has shot an African-American youth. Unlike the character in the movie, his biggest worry is his mislaid cuff links, a problem quickly resolved by his lovingly bemused wife, Nia (Esther Winter.) The audience is presented with the image of a happy, playful, biracial couple that seems to have it all. Unlike stories about race from previous generations (think Guess Whose Coming to Dinner), thankfully, the validity of their relationship is no longer a central question. Instead the essence of this play delves into the defining aspects of race and the problem of discussing it with honesty and sensitivity. What ensues is a lively conversation play complicated by the introduction of Trey Brown (D. Scott Adams), Robert's childhood friend, lifelong confidant, current manager and producer of the film Division Street. Nia finds Trey mildly irritating as he has assumed the mannerisms and speech of a rapper. When she questions him on this choice, he defends himself by relating his childhood outside of Baltimore where all of his friends except Robert were black. He feels it is authentic and natural behavior for him. To everyone else, it seems contrived, a grating affectation bordering on being socially offensive. From this setup, DIVISION STREET becomes a three person conversation that moves from race to ageism to jealousy to cultural appropriation to fame to entitlement and back to race. The discussion is wide-ranging, interesting and humorous.
Director Ralph Meranto has assembled a strong ensemble. All three actors are relaxed on stage and play their characters with naturalness and energy. David Andreatta as Robert and Esther Winter as Nia create a convincing married couple that are physically comfortable with each other and emotionally trusting. We believe that Robert and Trey (D. Scott Adams) have had a long and spirited friendship. The acting clearly and convincingly establishes the comic situation. Likewise, scenic designer David Daniels has fashioned an attractive and functional set that looks the part of a luxury hotel suite.
Meranto's production of DIVISION STREET fulfills all the hopes expressed by writer Jason Odell Williams. The audience, entertained, exits the theater talking about the various issues presented. We get some insight into the characters' logic and reasoning. The dialogue flows naturally and is at times engaging. However, on the drive home, one finds oneself questioning the theatrical experience. The production is well done, but the play lacks a sense of crisis. The action never rises to the point where personal decisions become critical. The humor never springs from an intensity of emotion and the play lacks a true climax. The dramatic structure is subdued at best. Like the elevated perch of the luxury hotel where it takes place, the play looks at the issue of racism from a distance and abstractly. The discussion hopscotches around, refusing a coherent direction and denying purpose. By design, the dialogue simply introduces topics to let them drift into the audience's consciousness. Is it effective? The standing ovation speaks for itself. But somehow our final discussion of this play involves its failure to evoke that theatrical experience created when characters are moved to pursue passionate motivations. The engaging banter without dynamic action ultimately leaves us wanting more.
CenterStage's DIVISION STREET runs until November 17th. To find out more about times or tickets click here.