Review - Normalcy

When it comes to the subject of transracial adoption, it would be nice to think that any child is better off with two loving and supportive parents of a different race than with nothing permanent at all, but in Bennett Windheim's challenging play, Normalcy, which deals specifically with the issue of white parents adopting black children, there is a passionate argument presented that claims such an act will inevitably cause serious damage for the child.

At its best, Normalcy is the kind of play that will make people uncomfortable, in the best possible sense, and stimulate discussion; excellent traits for a new piece. Theatre East's Off-Off Broadway production is nicely mounted by Benard Cummings (especially good work by set designer Lea Anello for creating numerous locations on what must be a modest budget and to Scott O'Brien for the uneasy moodiness of his score.) but the play, at this state, is an admirable and ambitious work in progress.

Advertising slogan exec Peter (Judson Jones) and his fashion journalist wife Sarah (Aleisha Force) insist they are not rich as they entertain his father and her mother at their Sag Harbor summer home. A retired high school teacher, Peter's outspoken father, Jules (Harvey Guion), is never at a loss for comments about how his son's profession contributes nothing to society. Sarah's mother Marta, who is described by the playwright as being "of vague European descent" (Mary Ann Hay complies with a strong, but vague, accent.) takes an elitist view of her daughter's profession. ("I do not understand how so many people are interested in fashion they cannot afford and celebrities they will never meet. That's very American.")

Unsuccessful at several expensive attempts to conquer their fertility problem, Peter and Sarah announce that not only do they intend to adopt, but specifically that they plan to adopt a black child. The hints of their well-meaning but naïve white liberal guilt motivating this choice are evident throughout the play, but when Peter finally explains the long-ago event that set him on a path of making up for the sins of his forefathers, it plays like an unrealistic cliché.

The play picks up significant steam when the couple meets with social worker, Catherine (Darlene Hope), a black woman who encounters August Wilson-loving, Langston Hughes-appreciating white couples like them every day. Her job is to find suitable homes for countless underserved black children and she is ruthless in her determination to make sure these prospective parents will be prepared for what's to come. ("But there will be that word you would never ever use, never ever permit in your house, coming out of the mouth of your adopted black son and testing your liberal Upper West Side sensibilities. Now what do you do?") Like the majority of prospective adoptive parents, Sarah and Peter are looking for an infant, but Catherine expertly plays on their insistence that they want to make a difference for a deserving child and convinces them to spend time with a seven year old boy with attention deficit disorder, as he would be available immediately. We never see the child, but the playwright develops sympathy for him through the conversations of others.

There are broad hints of sexual and romantic tension between Peter and his young black assistant Solonge (Sarah Joyce), who he keeps referring to as Sally, but that subplot never gets fully developed.

Windheim goes for the jugular in the second act when Aiesha (Lisha Mckoy), a guest speaker in front of an audience of white couples hoping to adopt black children, explains how she, a black woman, grew to hate the well-meaning, loving and supportive white couple that adopted her and made it impossible for her to develop a racial identity. ("My awareness of being African has always been on a theoretical level.") Whether you agree with her position or not, her monologue contains the evening's best writing and Mckoy delivers it for its full, harsh impact.

The other actors are not as fortunate. Although the acting ensemble does respectable work, the characters are mostly underwritten types. The story carries little emotional punch because the go-getting Sarah and the burnt out Peter are rarely seen relating to each other as a couple.

Most of the scenes in the two-and-a-half hour play can use some trimming, as the characters tend to have conversations that go off in extemporaneous tangents. Perhaps doing so will help streamline focus on the main issue, which is where Normalcy shows potential to be truly exciting.

Photo of Darlene Hope, Aleisha Force and Judson Jones by James M. Wilson.

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From This Author Ben Peltz

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