THE BASICS: THE SIDEWALK STAGEPLAY by Edreys Wajed and Paulette D. Harris, directed by Paulette D. Harris, runs through April 7, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 at the Paul Robeson Theatre in the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue (884-2013) Fresh popcorn, water, iced tea, candy available. www.aaccbuffalo.org/paul-robeson-theatre- Runtime: 2-1/2 hours with one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Opening and closing with local poet Edreys Wajed reciting from his poem “The Sidewalk,” this play presents a series of vignettes of life in an impoverished black neighborhood, scenes based on Wajed’s poetry and turned into theater in collaboration with the Paul Robeson Theater’s Artistic Director, Paulette D. Harris.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: On a realistic set designed by Antonio Harris, complete with chain-link fencing and graffiti covered walls, we meet several locals. Andy Noel plays the teenager “Mike” who is athletic, and college bound whose big “scam” is trying to sneak a new pair of sneakers past his loving mother, played by Janine D. Glover, who has “mom’s eyes” and isn’t fooled for a minute. “Mike” got the money for the sneakers from the heart-of-gold street merchant “Rock,” brilliantly played as a calm presence by Anthony Clark. Despite his occupation, everybody should have a “Rock” in their life. Ayana Naomi plays the concerned teacher where “Ronesha” (played by Janisha Whitlock) is overwhelmed and exhausted because her mom works two jobs and she must take care of her younger siblings. “Mike” and “Ronesha” are starting to flirt and he calls her “Ro-Ro.” Chalma Warmley is “Pookie” the old guy, a philosopher with a shopping cart full of bottles and Linda Barr, is “Loretta,” the frantic mother, interpretive dancer, and later is unrecognizable when she’s playing a strung-out crazy street lady.
Arterist Molson plays “Lenny,” another street person, younger, hotter headed, and a lot less thoughtful than his friend “Rock.” Madeline E. Allard plays “Becky,” the suspicious white woman who lives in the neighborhood. Daniel Greer plays the older, “Cop Dad” as an old-school, arrest first and ask questions later white cop who hassles “Richard” played by Mike Hicks in front of Richard’s son “Chris” played by Isaac Fareed. And this confrontation takes place right after Richard has given Chris “the talk” about what to do in the presence of a white police officer. Zack McCarty plays “Cop Son,” who is trying to bring the new style of community policing to his job. Edreys [say “eh-DREEZ”] Wajed is the narrator. The acting talent is fine, with the older actors being, understandably, a little more comfortable on stage.
This play, THE SIDEWALK STAGEPLAY certainly fits the goals of the AACC. As they write on their website: “Since 1958, the African-American Cultural Center, Inc. has enabled spirits to soar and offered sanctuary, validation and celebration for the duality of being African and American.” And Agnes M. Bain, Executive Director of the AACC adds: “The vision of [AACC founder] Malcolm Erni was ahead of its time. I think he was a genius. He wanted to build a place where young people, especially, would be able to learn about their heritage and culture and become better individuals because of this self-knowledge.” So, there’s no question that this play is right for this venue.
However, the show is perhaps a half hour too long. There is a balance between entertainment and education and the evening started to feel a little bit like school. I’m completely sympathetic. As a college professor, as a radio announcer, and as a parent every day I fall into the trap of thinking “if I just talk a little more, I’ll be able to include everything, and it will all become so clear them.” So, yes, I struggle to accept the “keep them wanting more” axiom. And I’m sure between them Edreys Wajed and Paulette D. Harris already agonized as they left out dozens of great stories and insights. I wouldn’t doubt that they started with a five hour play and wrestled it down to 2 and a half. I’m just saying that, as wonderful and cushy as the new seats are in the PRT, two hours might be enough.
Also, while some of the vignettes stand on their own, and several are connected, such as the story of Ronesha/Ro-Ro, others seem to be incomplete. For example, we start the play with “Loretta,” a mother frantically searching for her 19-year-old son, Toussaint/Sonny. There are a lot of gunshots in this play and certainly her concern, every parent’s concern, is ratcheted up by that fact. Later, she goes to the police station to file a missing person’s report, but she is treated as just another annoying resident with a complaint. But what happened to Sonny? We never find out.
Every venue has its own little charms. There are several at the PRT including fresh, hot popcorn in the lobby (Zeriuah Shadwick, concessions) and, after every show, the entire cast exits immediately to the lobby where they form a receiving line so you can meet’n’greet without any awkward “Oh, I’d love to talk to that actor but I don’t want to interrupt” moments. Nice tradition.
Photos courtesy Paulette D. Harris and African American Cultural Center
UP NEXT: THREE SISTAH’S, a gospel musical, May 3 – 26. “In 1969 Washington D.C sisters Olive, Marsha, and Irene reunite to grieve their mother, father, and now, younger brother as they share secrets and memories in spirited gospel songs.”
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!