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“Fatherless Sons” -A Play In Progress, Reviewed

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“To sleep

Perchance to dream”

_William Shakespeare

 

“I’m tired

Oh so tired

To travel.

To travel in my head

Oh to dream.”

-John Ransom Phillip

The first thing to note about Rebecca H James production of John Ransom Phillip’s “Fatherless Sons” is that it is a dream play, it occurs in the flutters of the subconscious and if you approach it too literally, you will be lost.

The next thing is that it is poetry. Impressionistic and stark, the words lift this meditation on President Barack Obama’s memoir of self-discovery “Dreams From My Father” out of the political realm and into the pure world of conscious beauty.  There are moments when the words are like shining beacons of revelation but also fluid, lucid, lovely: where they aren’t utilitarian at all, but made to speak an image in your mind.

The final thing to note about the production of “Fatherless Sons” is that it is  in progress. I was invited to a performance by the composer of the original music, Tomas Doncker. And the difference is that while it functions as both poetry and as theatre, it doesn’t yet work as a play, at this stage it feels not useful enough, we need to be guided more. I am sure that will happen in the workshop.

Performed at a Townhouse on the East Side Friday night, the outrageously talented five member cast worked directly from scripts they held,  though it didn’t feel as though they needed them very much. The set as such was a mattress and a couple of chairs. The cast remained on stage, sitting on chairs when they weren’t part of action whileTomas Doncker lead his band through music more than incidental or simply soundtrack but that swelled and retreated based purely upon the needs of the play, sometimes overwhelming the actors, sometimes so quiet it takes a moment to realize they have, indeed, stopped playing at all.

On his website, Phillip describes the play as follows: “Barack Obama feels the continuing loss of his father who was never there for him. He feels it as a large black hole growing hourly larger that must be filled in order for him to become himself. The play is a journey of self-discovery inspired by “Dreams of My Father” but in no way a translation. Obama meets three iconic Afro-American leaders, all fatherless sons who also feel the desperation of incompletion. Each tries to influence the young Obama dispensing guidance peculiar to his own character and way of movement. In time he meets Mike who is complete with his own father and pushes the future president to find closure in his quest by loving himself as a fatherless son.”

A weary and youthful Obama falls asleep on his bed where he dreams of other fatherless sons, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, and Al Sharpton.  Ancient spirits summon these icons of the past who arrive to guide him through this dark hole in his soul, because of the lack of a father figure, or perhaps because of a loss of a sense of his blackness. Both ideas are  possible, and while during a q&a at the end had Phillip agreeing it was more about fathers than about skin pigmentation, that hits me as a half truth.

The truth is, black society is a matriarchy, with everyone from Kanye West to Obama himself raised by mothers and Grandmothers. With black fathers either jailed or irresponsible, the story of Black America in 2015, is black women holding down three jobs to support their children. But men’s relationship’s with their mothers is relatively simply, it is intensely Oedipal, while men’s relationships with  fathers is more complex: we want to kill them for sleeping with our mothers. Men understand this instinctively, and so they don’t need to dwell on their mothers. And when that central part of their life story is missing, the father’s,  it leads to extreme duress, violence, replacement anxiety and worse. And better..

Obama, X –the other Black leaders here, could be claimed to have picked up black politics to fill the hole not just for themselves, but for black people everywhere in summoning fatherless sons. The cast read the play with extreme understanding, they neither underplay nor oversell. As Obama, Eric Gravez gives an intense innocence to his performance, this is a much earlier incantation of the President than the one we know, he has some of the wide eyed college kid about him, but as he listens to his would be mentors, you can see what impresses him and what doesn’t. What he chooses to take and what he doesn’t. Cezar Williams, in a jogging suit, is a huckster Sharpton and Khalil Kain –who also directed the 50 minute play, is a devilish early X.

I spoke with Phillip briefly after the performance and he mentioned he would like to see more dance involved. Indeed, Pamela Monroe’s movements suggest the possibility of “Fatherless Sons” becoming a hybrid modern ballet performance. Certainly, Doncker’s music has enough muscle to easily be transformed for pure dance moments.

Whatever James and her production should choose to do, they should certainly do something. A difficult concept was executed with extreme grace and intelligence. It deserves to be explored further.

1 Comment

  1. RL on October 19, 2015 at 11:10 am

    How about that Mike character, though? Great work by Mr. BARNES.

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