By TOM CHESEK
“I’m through with the interracial dating thing,” says the black homeless advocate Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden) to the white well-to-do writer Judith (Merritt Janson), in Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine. “OJ stupid-ass messed it up for the rest of us.”
Confrontational by nature (but not so consumed with anger that he can’t win an audience over with some pithy observations and well-placed laugh lines); at odds with American social attitudes (but not so beaten down by the system that he can’t sport a peacock-proud wardrobe), Zeke is an intriguingly inscrutable original — a fact not lost on Judith, whose interest in the educated former professional extends beyond a simple donation of clothing to the local shelter.
Their uneasy transaction sounds the keynote for Blues, the play written and directed by Tony-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson that wraps up its world premiere run this week at Red Bank’s Two River Theater.
Presented without intermission, the short and not-at-all Sweet drama takes place in the year 2002, and in two distinctly different settings: Judith’s Upper West Side pad, the scene of one disastrous excuse for a dinner party; and a subterranean squat beneath Grand Central that’s home to one Zebedee, a Yoda-like street philosopher who serves as mentor of sorts to Zeke.
It’s an oddly structured script that’s well served with a dependably top-shelf production design by Michael Carnahan and the Two River team. But its generally fast pace doesn’t do justice to the central party scene, an affair that goes directly to full-tilt rage – and choreographed physical fracas – without passing hors d’oeuvres.
An expert on and a onetime associate of the late great August Wilson, Santiago-Hudson is a much more nuanced director than he is a playwright at this stage of the game, and the man who brought acclaimed productions of two Wilson classics to the Two River stage (Jitney and Two Trains Running) elicits his best performances from two longtime members of his unofficial stock company: Dirden and Roslyn Ruff (both fresh off their turn as Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Broadway’s All the Way). Their partygoer characters here have an adversarial relationship from the get-go — and maybe because of the two actors’ long collaborative history –this is the fourth high-profile project they’ve appeared in together – the tensions ring more true than with the characters played by Janson and Andrew Hovelson.
While the best of Wilson’s plays took their sweet time to score their points – letting their observations on Big Issue topics like institutionalized racism, white privilege, generational/class struggles and gentrification flow organically from the conversational interplay – the people in Your Blues aren’t characters so much as they are vehicles for a rapid-fire volley of name-dropped references, spouted statistics, and a lot more expository filler than is called for. Ruff’s Jeanine is told that “you’re the Vice President of Marketing at Turner Broadcasting,” as if she needed reminding. The author takes great pains to mention all the correct figures from jazz, blues and the Harlem Renaissance (all but patting himself on the back for inserting some chat about the one-eyed pianist James Booker), often in such speedy succession that the history lesson is lost on the listener. And with the clock ticking on this barely ninety-minute drama, the characters feel compelled to deliver more of their backstories (their college majors, their family histories, that mentoring program they’re involved with) than might otherwise emerge on a figurative first date. From the penthouses to the train tunnels and all places in between, it doesn’t come across as a representation of the ways in which people really talk – a group portrait painted with a trowel, rather than a fine horsehair brush.
Things take a bit of a breather during the final sequence in Zebedee’s underground lair, where the wise old “griot” and decorated veteran (Charles Weldon) advises the “walking outburst” Zeke on the importance of tact (“say it sweetly, melodiously”) in winning friends and influencing people. While the quasi-mystical encounter is no less corny and surreal than the rest of Your Blues, it does manage to close out this clench-fisted and in-your-face sketch of a play on a conciliatory note, one in which it can be imagined that the ghost of the master dramatist offers sage counsel to his highly skilled, accomplished (but still-learning) student — as Santiago-Hudson himself put it in an interview that appeared here on redbankgreen, “I consider myself a disciple of August Wilson: a colleague, a mentee, a brother.”
Remaining performances of Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine — each of which are followed by helpful talk-back sessions with the audience — are April 30, May and May 2 at 8 pm, with 3 pm matinees on May 2 and 3. Take it here for tickets ($20 – $65 adults) — and here for our interview with star Brandon J. Dirden.