By Radha Blank
Directed by Niegel Smith
Classical Theatre of Harlem & Hip-Hop Theatre Festival
at National Black Theatre, 2033 Fifth Avenue at 125th Street
September 16, 2011 — October 9, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 10, 2011

(L-R) Bridgit Anoinette Evans and Pernell Walker. Photo by Ruth Sovronsky.

My difficulty in selecting an illustrative review image from the lovely production photographs provided for Seed (currently running at the National Black Theatre) may be related to my range of reactions to this production of this layered play: many moments, many shards out of  directorial decisions that create powerful stage pictures such as the one captured in the image accompanying this review, while other directorial decisions hold action boxed up in an area far upstage — confined, removed, not part of an integrated whole.  This dream and personal history play does holds raw material for a range of treatments.  A staged reading of an earlier draft by the Classical Theatre of Harlem some months ago packed a more significant emotional wallop for me, and I ponder the reasons.  While this purpose of this review is not to compare a reading with a production and two quite distinct versions of this work to one another, one point can be made: focus creates theatrical power and a combination of genres partially deflates that power.  That said: Radha Blank‘s beautiful words, these individual performances, the shards and layers are often stunning and in the end I do conclude that this is a play that hits at current cultural truths and reflects a powerful musical poetic playwright sensibility.  Attention must be paid.

Anne Simpson (Bridgit Antoinette Evans) is an experienced social worker we meet lecturing social workers in training (perhaps at Columbia) about principles of the field and in particular about a heinous case in her own professional past.  Children in danger who may or may not have been saved by her.  The fame that ensues compromises her relationships with professional colleagues. Anne is at a crossroads, about to take a sabbatical to do some writing, on the verge of retirement. We watch Anne engage with incarcerated Rashawn (the stunning Pernell Walker), a case from her past with murky details.  And we watch Anne offer tutoring to a bright child from the projects (Che-Che played by Khadim Diop), engage with his provocative and compelling mother Latonya (Jocelyn Bioh), and his remarried father Twan (Jaime Lincoln Smith).  This is Anne’s story of making sense of her personal and professional past.  This play is also full of the stories of the individuals she touches and the choices she makes — the balance of the narratives sometimes feels askew.

The tightly integrated spoken word exposition and dialogue sometimes seems at odds with the directorial choices mentioned at the top of this review.  Director Niegel Smith has crafted action and images along strong diagonals in this black box space — prisoner in bright light, subway platforms.  Smith has also chosen to place simpler exposition in several conventional literal locations (shops, apartments) oddly far upstage, distanced, restricted, staid — with characters who stand and deliver lines rather than live them, embody them.  These choices don’t derail the emotional impact of the piece, just halt it for me at times.

Projections by Kate Freer as preshow pastiche and backdrop throughout the show keep us in the world of this play — the world around the theatre in which we experience the show.  The streets of Harlem from Marcus Garvey Park to the Apollo Theater to the subway stops nearby that most of the audience members have used to reach the theatre and which are used by the play’s characters in the course of the action.

We are in this story from its first moments and, even with occasional steps out of the emotional throughline, this is a ride worth taking.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 16, 2011)

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