note: entire contents copyright 1996 by Larry Stark
Set Design by Judy Stacier
Lighting Design by Marc Klureza
Costume Design by Michael McAleer
Sound Design by Amar Hamoudi
Stage Manager Jennifer Davis
Young Ernie...Richard Auguste
Barb.........Diana Lee Benson
CENTASTAGE, to its undying credit, only does new plays. "Boy X Man" their newest production is something like a memory- stew cooked up by Ed Bullins. Short, pithy scenes swim out of his past as Ernie (Jeff Garlin) tries to deal with the death of his mother Brenda (Patrice Jabouin) --- who always thought of herself as "A New Negro Woman" and expected Ernie to be a leader of his people. But Brenda never went to New York to be "discovered" and these scenes, soliloquies, speeches, confrontations and monologs never reveal their common thread. Tasty though the pieces are, they remain a memory-stew, not a play.
Out of this stew, Bullins might have pulled a study of three sisters: Brenda, who accepts the love of a good, steady man (Will played by Lonnie Farmer); Barb, who works several jobs to raise her kids and even board Ernie periodically; and wild, worldly Sophia, for whom no man is "hep enough" for very long.
As played by Diana Lee Benson, Barb looks to the past --- invoking the mores of their dead Mama and lending pious lip- service to the Church, hoping for a helpmate/husband, settling for the best compromise she can make. Comika Griffin makes Sophia whiplash-thin, acid-tongued, self-assured, self-centered and iconoclastic.
These two might be the contradictory possibilities that Brenda rejects to settle into married motherhood with Will --- a good though unambitious provider who genuinely loves her and her son and gives them the stability and dignity Ernie's violent, abusive real father (Michael Nurse) never could. There are scenes in which the three women talk and giggle and rage about each other's views of men --- their men, each other's men, and each one's ideal man --- but the playwright never gives enough attention to them long enough for their play to develop.
Then again there might be a play about Will himself. Lonnie Farmer plays him as a solid, sincere, sometimes moody man willing to do the right thing --- someone ready to go to war on Pearl Harbor Day because it would dignify the Negro American. He speaks of his pride at being made a Negro Corporal, at becoming a Negro Sargent after his Purple Heart. His collapse into shell- shock after witnessing the Nazi Death-Camps could be meat for his own play, but Bullins covers it in a few lines, and Will's play is not yet written.
But then, it's Ernie's play, isn't it? It's his memories, no matter how tiny, how disjointed and fragmented, that are shown. Jeff Garlin plays him as the narrator, the rememberer; Richard Auguste plays him as the remembered urchin --- hearing snippets and scenes, whining after his own independence, dipping into the dangerous street-life outside the family circle. But his drift away from the values of Will and Brenda is never either documented, explained, or even examined. Bullins doesn't even tell who or what Ernie, grown, has become.
So it must really be Brenda's play after all. She's the central character, moving from a new mother night-club dancer to respectable home-body to well-paid war-worker to disillusioned partner of a mentally maimed veteran, yet never fully revealed as the heroine of her own drama. Like the play, the various glittering fragments of her life never really jell.
Part of the problem is the form. This memory-stew is built up of brief self-contained scenes widely disjointed in time each one of which demands movie-like verisimilitude in scene and details, and each one dependent on an understated phrase or two to set the historical context, while other tense sentences shoot home the meaning. This task must have been a nightmare for the designers, who had to span twenty years on a shoe-string budget. Brief scenes that should require several complete, realistic sets to be erected and torn down within seconds of one another exist side by side, and theatrical magic can stretch only so far. Two different "period" radios aren't quite enough.
Considering the brevity of the many scenes, the actors --- particularly Lonnie Farmer and Patrice Jabouin --- managed much more than surface mannerisms wherever possible, and the tech-crews won at least two falls out of three. Director Mort Kaplan imposed what shape he could on the amorphous mass. It looked, however, as though everyone connected with the show, including the playwright, would have needed another year of rehearsing to find or develop a single skewer to hold this shishkebob together.