Los Angeles Theater Review: FRATERNITY (Ebony Repertory Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on May 23, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


At its core, Jeff Stetson’s Fraternity is about the two options that face black men in today’s society (or, at least, the society of Birmingham in 1987, when the play was written): Either become part of the white establishment or cling passionately and tenaciously to the tenets of the early civil rights movement. With seven characters, these polarized choices are limiting for Stetson, whose play can be more pompous than provocative. Yet the gorgeous remounting which opened Saturday by Ebony Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Fraternity" at Ebony RepRep mows over the wobbly script – which is nonetheless packed with great dialogue and brotherhood catfighting – and showcases the finest assemblage of talent that you can find on an LA stage.

Charles Lincoln (Roger Robinson), a former agitator who became a state senator in the south during the 1960s, has become more conventional and conservative with his politics. Paul Stanton (Rocky Carroll), who once worked for Lincoln, is slighted by his complacency and is now challenging him for the party’s nomination; with one week to go before the election, Stanton is just points behind Lincoln.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Fraternity" at Ebony RepDuring the first act, these two verbally spar in the lounge of an elitist all-black men’s social club, where four other members have assembled with the politicians to meet a potential new member, the preppy and eager-to-please Brandon Carrington (Nasir Najieb), who has qualities they seek: he’s mannerly, smart, and personable. But while reviewing his application, ex-jazz musician Turk notices that Brandon was born on the day in 1963 when four girls were killed by a bomb at a local church – a blast which affected the other voting members as well. Reverend Wilcox (Harvy Blanks), who was the church’s pastor, became an alcoholic; Turner Greystone (Tucker Smallwood), the editor of a black newspaper, seems to have lost faith in himself; and Turk Maddox (Obba Babatundé), whose daughter was killed in the explosion, hasn’t played his trombone since. Less affected by history, the unscrupulous multimillionaire Preston Gherard (William Allen Young) is all business.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Fraternity" at Ebony RepThere are some manipulative dramatic devices that we just have to take on faith. One of them occurs when Brandon’s birthdate has such horrible memories for the men that they actually hesitate about letting the Ivy League graduate – whose interest is International Finance – join the club (at least the guys agree to think on it). When they leave, the newspaper man tells the naïve Brandon about the bombing, but then the playwright turns an incongruous corner. When Turner refers to the sermon delivered by Reverend Wilcox after the bombing, the lights go down, and a younger Wilcox enters to deliver the lengthy oration behind a lectern stage left. The speech knocks the wind right out of the play. Obviously, Stetson’s intention was to bring us back to that time via an emotive sermon; instead, he created a potent soporific that promptly sapped all the tension from the first act.

Then, in act two, Stetson actually utilizes this ploy again. This time, senator-wannabe Stanton comes to the same lectern to deliver an unnecessary, sentimental, inconsequential, verbose campaign speech stuffed with rhetoric. Yet again, the outcome is stultifying. It also emphasizes how Stetson uses his characters too often as mouthpieces for his agenda rather than allowing us to get to know these men better. In all fairness, there are many, many times when the verbal scuffling is Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Fraternity" at Ebony Repcompelling and raises many issues that are no less persuasive, including those of ghettoization, race, class, authority, integration, selling out and disowning history, but the script ultimately resides in a netherworld between agitprop and powerful drama – a typhoon of tricky topics without much resolution.

I firmly believe that this play would not be produced if it did not contain seven distinct and well-drawn characters – however symbolic – for black actors. (I mean, how many times can an African-American repertory revive August Wilson?) But this is what separates Ebony Rep, the only black Equity company in L.A. history, from any other troupe who would dare to take on this problematic play. Producer Wren T. Brown has lavished the same amount of love, professionalism and attention to this piece as he did to the sterling revival of A Raisin in the Sun (which Center Theatre Group moved to the Kirk Douglas as an adjunct to Clybourne Park last year). And when the authoritative acting syncs with the playwright’s pithy commentary, it’s powerful enough to pull you towards the stage.

The authoritative Roger Robinson (Tony winner for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) already proved that he can take a pedestrian script and create magic in Dividing the Estate at the Old Globe, but his take on Senator Lincoln was a privilege to watch; look for a hint of sadness and disconnect beneath the bluster. Obba Babatundé has Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Fraternity" at Ebony Repalways been a great song-and-dance man, but the moment when he, as Turk, imitated a trombone through strains of melancholy, it was as if we were witnessing the birth of the blues. As Preston, William Allen Young made sleaze look easy when he unctuously attempted to grease any palm to suit his needs. Rocky Carroll (TV’s NCIS) is the pillar of righteousness as the political contender, Paul; his unrelenting stance in the face of a corrupt system is almost painful to see. Tucker Smallwood played a man of faith with such conviction in The Sunset Limited at Rogue Machine that it still burns in my memory; here, he had the duty of playing Turner, a newspaperman who has allowed the years to rob him of that same level of faith; his spirit sagged, but there was fire in his eyes. Nasir Najieb radiated such purity as the member-elect Brandon that even his skin seemed to glow, and Harvy Blanks did an admirable job as Rev. Wilcox, the preacher who drinks to put out the fire in his belly.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Fraternity" at Ebony RepElizabeth Harper’s lights effectively evoked the sunlight streaming into the set by Edward E. Haynes Jr, which has all the rich, dark wood and thick stained glass one would expect from an elite club, but he miraculously added a barely perceptible patina of age. Director Henry Miller keeps the action brisk, although it seemed that the primary motivation for most of his actors to move was that ubiquitous drink, be it a glass of water or a cocktail. But Miller is to be praised for not getting in his actors’ way. These astounding thespians cannot be recommended highly enough.

photos of original 2012 production by Craig Schwartz

Ebony Repertory Theatre
Nate Holden Performing Arts Center (4718 W. Washington Blvd.)
scheduled to end on June 2, 2013
for tickets, call 323-964-9766 or visit http://www.ebonyrep.org

{ 1 comment }

Eleanor Herman June 5, 2013 at 5:39 am

If you are looking for good original plays about black people, I have one entitled “UNCLE”, that Mr. Miller directed here in New York City, about four years ago at the H.A.D.L.E.Y. PLAYERS (Ms. Gertrude Jeanette’s outfit). I would be more than willing to send it to you at your request.

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