Los Angeles Theater Review: BONDED (Los Angeles Theatre Center)

BONDED by Donald Jolly at the Los Angeles Theater Center

by Tony Frankel on April 3, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE BOYS IN THE BOND

Regarding his play bonded, black playwright Donald Jolly has said that he is trying to lay claim to his own place in this world by using tales of his enslaved ancestors as a guide. In Jon Lawrence Rivera’s imaginative production of bonded, now on at Los Angeles Theatre Center, it is intriguing to notice that Jolly has succeeded in owning his identity as an out, gay man, but he doesn’t just use his ancestors as a guide, he places his story of brother-to-brother love squarely in the world of 1820s Virginia. While the construction of this promising playwright’s exciting work needs re-tooling, it is a fantastic story which is entertaining and thought-provoking. Do not be swayed by the notion that bonded is a work-in-progress – the play is produced with utmost earnestness and professionalism from both cast and crew. This is exactly the kind of theater Los Angeles audiences need to support.

bonded introduces us to Asa (Eric B. Anthony), a defiant New York “house boy” sold into servitude on a poor, dilapidated Virginia farm. He joins the only three remaining slaves: Jack (Carl Crudup), the old and unpredictable overseer who is so filled with rage that he is willing to whip his fellow slaves; Lily (Toyin Moses), a house-worker whose goal it is to get hitched – or “jump the broom” – to field-hand Sonny (Terrence Colby Clemons). While Lily is almost giddily resigned to servitude, Sonny aches for freedom – not just from slavery, but from the guilt and shame caused by his desires for men. While Sonny teaches Asa the ways of a field hand, they develop feelings for each other, triggering a passion that will have all four slaves examining dark secrets from the past, while testing the boundaries of their existence.

For this re-imagined scenario of plantation life, Jolly’s language can be humorous and poetically explicit, employing authentic-sounding vernacular of “barn niggers.” However, his exploration of what it would be like for slaves to explore their homosexuality (let alone act on it), appears almost as a fantasy. The slaves-as-lovers story is a stimulating conjecture which by no means comes off as slight, but bonded veers perilously close toward being a literate and fascinating Harlequin Romance more than a deeper exploration of the theme of bondage. This middle ground makes the slaves’ perilous situation lack tension (imagine Martin Sherman’s Bent, but with gay men being allowed to touch each other in a Concentration Camp). It appears that a tightening of the play’s structure is in order. As it stands, some may even perceive bonded as a soft-core gay man’s fantasy (come on, a muscular male slave washing down the naked newcomer in chains? Easy, boy).

All of the acting is brave and noteworthy, most notably Mr. Clemons – his struggle emanates from the depths of his soul. Mr. Anthony, who has performed well in musicals and comedies, needs to internalize his drama more; his is an engaging but presentational performance. Miss Moses is thoroughly appealing and Mr. Crudup’s authenticity as an African-born slave wins our sympathy, even as his character is called upon to perform loathsome acts.

The configuration of the theatre allows the audience to face each other, almost as if we are forced to examine our own society through the prism of Jolly’s play. When John H. Binkley’s set of a slave house converts to a plow in the field, it is a masterstroke of invention. Adam Blumenthal’s ingenious lighting design fills the space from all angles, while Jack’s pants are stained in all the right places by costumer Mylette Nora. Director Rivera sure knows how to create a beautiful and innovative production, but in bonded, as with his The Sonneteer, one wishes that his actors were more stylistically in synch; sometimes it feels as if he spent more time with his designers than with his actors.

As with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors at the Matrix, and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus at A.C.T., it is thrilling to see the emergence of the next generation of black playwrights with productions that validate their promise.

photos by Adam Blumenthal

bonded
Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring St. in Downtown
Thurs-Sat at 8
ends on April 17, 2011
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit LATC

{ 1 comment }

Colin Gibson April 8, 2011 at 11:01 am

Tony:

I couldn’t agree with you more about the earnestness and professionalism of this production, the excellence of its design elements, Jolly’s poetically explicit language and the brave and noteworthy acting. I’m going to see it a second time this evening.

Perhaps you’re right that Jolly could have gone deeper in his exploration of the relationship between Sonny and Asa. But the play worked for me. If it was on some level a “a soft-core gay man’s fantasy,” as a gay man I must admit bringing my own fantasy life to the theater with me.

Thanks for the review!

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