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YOUR BLUES AIN'T SWEET LIKE MINE began its three-week run April 17 at the Two River Theater in Red Bank by focusing on the important issue of race in America. Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson's script and direction produced a realistic and meaningful production that reinforced the concept that more than home is where the heart is - it's where you are as well - and asked many poignant questions whose answers appear at different points in the performance.

In the first of the three scenes of the continuous 90-minute play, Judith, an aspiring writer, is intrigued by her friend Zeke, and seeks to write an in-depth piece about him for The New York Times Magazine. Judith doesn't understand how a well-educated and well-read person such as Zeke could "end up" as an advocate for the homeless. The concept that an individual of such a profile could aspire to that role is not transparent until the final scene, and was consistent with the theme of where is your heart.

They engage in a friendly and at times animated back-and-forth about how much each knows about the other's historical roots (Judith is Caucasian, Zeke is African-American), particularly in music (specifically blues). After his calling out a lengthy list of names and knowledge surprises Judith, Zeke tells her that he is a "walking outburst," which characterizes his bellicosity in discussions beyond this one.

Their chemistry evolved from bantering is among the factors that lead a once-reluctant Zeke to agree to be interviewed at a small dinner party with two other friends. There is just one proviso - the interview will go beyond the surface in the interview. It will go to the bone marrow level.

Zeke's enmity for the condition of how African-Americans are still treated in the USA, which is at that bone marrow level of his anger, is transparent during the dinner party in the play's second scene. There are frank discussions about America's relationship to race, and a highly charged discussion leads to one of the production's many hold-your-breath moments when Zeke tussles with Judith's male friend in her apartment.

In the final scene, Zeke visits Zebedee in his home, which is at the end of a tunnel beneath Grand Central Station. Their subdued interaction is a stark contrast to the emoting at Judith's gathering.The proud and sweet memories of Zebedee's liberating prisoners as a WW II soldier and the sadness over the inability to help his African-American friend in a sad and unjust situation after returning home gave the audience a deep-breath moment that explained his rationale for his decades-long depressing environment. Zebedee's library, shelves and stacks of books in his domain, implies he's not the garden-variety homeless man. He promotes education as "the passport to the future" and, in telling Zeke how long it might take to return with his herbs, he might have answered another question that resides at the pit of Zeke's disdain for conditions today.

The five-person cast was extraordinarily well played -- believable and performed their roles superbly with conviction.Though the production is set in NYC 2002, it could have also been set in a choice of cities in 2015. Zeke's desire "to matter" is consistent with a common call among protesters today. The intimate nature of the theater and the realistic set design brought the audience into Judith's apartment, and a creative mind gave those in attendance how a well-read tunnel-dwelling person's environment might appear. The script inspired, or maybe forced, viewers to consider various perspectives and how what some see as causes, others see as symptoms.

YOUR BLUES AIN'T SWEET LIKE MINE is a timely and important production that everyone should see -- now.

Cast of characters (in order of appearance): Judith: Merritt Janson; Zeke: Brandon J. Dirden; Janeece: Roslyn Ruff; Randall: Andrew Hovelson; Zebedee: Charles Weldon.

Scenic designer: Michael Carnahan; costume designer: Karen Perry; lighting and production designer: Driscoll Otto; sound designer: Robert Kaplowitz; original music: Bill Sims, Jr.; fight director: Thomas Schall; casting: Heidi Griffiths and Kate Murray; production stage manager: Laura Wilson; assistants to Ruben Santiago-Hudson: Dennis Chambers and Zoey Martinson; assistant scenic designer: Ann Beyersdorfer.

Two River Theater Artistic Director: John Dias

YOUR BLUES AIN'T SWEET LIKE MINE is playing at the Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ through May 3. Ticket information can be found at or by calling the Box Office at 732-345-1400

Photo credit: Michal Daniel

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