We need more solid black plays to occupy our many gifted black actors; August Wilson can’t do everything by himself. Suzan-Lori Parks can’t hoodwink every critic into believing she has it all. (She has a little.) Kia Corthron’s latest, Breath, Boom, was as awful as its title. Now comes Charles Randolph-Wright with Blue, as amateurish as a play can get.
The author has learned a few tricks. Start with an adult narrator announcing a memory play about his childhood, and make him invisible to the other characters during the first act, in the seventies. In Act Two, make his boyhood self an unseen presence in the nineties. Have a Luther Vandrossy singer, Blue Williams, pop up – a second unseen presence – with songs heard only by the female lead, Peggy Clark, a rabid fan.
Next, take a cue from The Cosby Show: Offer a comfortable, middle-class black family, the Clarks, thriving completely free of racial problems as owners of the only black funeral parlor in fictional Kent, South Carolina. Draw an easy contrast between a rebellious son and a docile one. Add a crusty grandmother. Have the poseurish, social-climbing Peggy married to the laid-back, passively amused Sam Clark Jr. Provide the elder son with a brash, lower-class girlfriend, LaTonya, for facile farce.
Then give us some instances of two simultaneous conversations, rendering what is said undecipherable (which, given this dialogue, may be beneficial). Finally, bring on Blue as an active character to provide a melodramatic twist. Have an epilogue as well as a prologue; logues are classy, after all.
Under Sheldon Epps’s stilted direction, the performances are undistinguished, with Phylicia Rashad’s Peggy worse than that and Randall Shepperd’s Sam Jr. better. James Leonard Joy’s set – lots of slatted flats – keeps moving around a lot, without ever looking different. Characters, however, change at the flick of the author’s wrist. The wholly unacceptable LaTonya need only say she digs Blue to become instantly the heretofore hostile Peggy’s bosom friend. After a concert, LaTonya snags a date with Blue to become Peggy’s bête noire. The vision of Blue emerges from every conceivable nook or cranny. At one point, two imaginary presences commune from opposite ends of the stage. Pretty soon you wish you were an imaginary presence, too.