Friday, February 28, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey THE 2014 AFRICAN AMERICAN THEATRE FESTIVAL (through March 1st at the BCA)

Robert Johnson Jr.’s sobering play, STOP AND FRISK, about racial profiling in an unfair legal system, is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was written twenty years ago. If only it didn’t resonate so loudly. In fact, “stand your ground” laws have proliferated while many lament that our constitutional rights have been thrown out the window.

When Johnson first wrote STOP AND FRISK, a yuppie white man had just shot his pregnant wife as they drove home from their childbirth class. He claimed an African American man had shot them in a carjacking gone wrong. Everyone believed him. It was 24/7 on the network news. Police undertook a massive manhunt, even arresting and charging an innocent man. No one suspected the husband even though statistics indicate that, with murder, it’s more likely to be a family member.

Even though Johnson mentions the incident, STOP AND FRISK isn’t just an indictment of the law, it’s a poignant story of a fiercely loyal family. Johnny Peterson’s mother will do everything in her power to prove her son’s innocence when he’s falsely arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He merely sat on a stoop to talk with two friends he hadn’t seen in a while. The police decide to hassle the teens and when they protest, the patrolmen rough them up and to their delight, find cocaine on the young man already known to them. The three get charged with possession.

Johnson creates warm, vibrant characters to populate his play and director Jacqui Parker found an extraordinary cast (some from her OUR PLACE theater program) to make us care deeply about them. I saw the play the first time round, with Parker herself and the late Tom Grimes, and it struck a mighty chord. I’m happy to say the chord is ringing again with the new cast.

Kinson Theodoris gives a powerful, charismatic performance as the young poet/ protagonist wrongly accused. Karimah Williams as his mother breaks your heart as she paces her kitchen waiting in vain for Johnny to come home. Valerie Lee returns to the stage (Hooray!) after a seven year hiatus and knocks us out with her firecracker performance as mother’s wisecracking homeless best friend. Eboni Baptiste makes Johnny’s attorney a no nonsense career woman with a affectionate soft spot for the aspiring writer.

Every actor in the show makes his/her role stand out, right down to the court officer (Evelyn Wynn, with only 2 or 3 lines) who shakes her finger at the witness and gets a well earned laugh. Parker and company demonstrate with plenty of style that Boston needs THE AFRICAN AMERICAN FESTIVAL. Welcome back.