at the Edgewater Theatre
When I saw Jeff Stetson's much-praised play, The Meeting, I wondered about his integrity. In this imaginary confrontation between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., King comes across as an indecisive wimp who shrinks from Malcolm X's aggressively defiant attitude toward white people. Stetson gave such short shrift to King's ideas about nonviolence that I assumed he had deliberately stacked the deck against him.
After seeing Stetson's Fraternity, I'm still wondering about his integrity, but now I also have questions about his judgment and common sense. I mean, what kind of playwright would include both a full-length sermon and an entire campaign speech?
Fraternity is about the two alternatives that, as Stetson sees it, face black people today: they can join the white establishment, or they can hang on to the passion and purpose of the early civil rights movement. Charles Lincoln (Alfred Wilson), a former firebrand who was elected a state senator in the south during the glory days of the civil rights movement, has become more conservative with age, and a bit lazy. The legislature's seniority system, for example, no longer seems so objectionable to him now that he has some seniority.
Paul Stanton (David Barr), who used to work for Lincoln, is offended by his complacency and has challenged him for the party's nomination. To everyone's amazement, with a week remaining before the primary, Stanton has pulled within three points of Lincoln. During the first act, the two of them square off in the lounge of an exclusive social club for blacks, where several members have gathered to meet a prospective new member, Brandon Carrington (Kristian Chanin Crawford). Carrington is an Ivy League graduate who hopes to get into international finance, and he seems likable, well-mannered, and intelligent--just what the members want. But while reviewing his application, they notice that the young man was born on the day in 1963 when a bomb blast killed four little girls at a local church. That bomb shook the lives of the members of the club. Reverend Wilcox (Jonathan Wilson), who was the church's pastor, has been an alcoholic ever since. Turner Greystone (Michael Myers), the editor of a black newspaper, lost faith in himself. And Turk Maddox (Craig Ford Sr.), a well-known jazz musician whose daughter was one of the victims, hasn't picked up his trombone since.
The date of Carrington's birth has such bad associations for the men that they develop reservations about letting him join the club, but they agree to go home and think about it, leaving Greystone to tell Carrington the story of the bombing. As Greystone tries to describe the sermon Reverend Wilcox delivered after the bombing, the back wall of the set opens like the doors in a cuckoo clock, and Wilcox, dressed in his minister's robes and standing behind a lectern, slides forward toward the audience and delivers that sermon in its entirety.
I've never seen a play deflate so quickly. Before the sermon was finished, I noticed one person in the audience sleeping and two others nodding off. Obviously Stetson aimed for a stirring sermon; instead, he created a powerful soporific that instantly drained the tension from the first act.
In the second act, Stetson employs this device again. This time the back wall opens to reveal Stanton, who delivers a rambling, wordy campaign speech. "It is time that representation meant reflection and leadership, and not exploitation and opportunism," he says. "I am for you not because you are for me. I am for you because you are me." Once again, the result is stupefying.
Fraternity is not merely boring, however; it is also philosophically bankrupt. Though his play purports to be a high-minded debate, Stetson displays no comprehension of the complexities that make social problems so difficult. Instead he holds up youthful passion as something inherently good, something that needs no justification. Reflecting on the bombing, the editor, Greystone, says "We all should have gone out and killed somebody. We lost the chance to be men."
Like The Meeting, Fraternity is little more than an expression of juvenile enthusiasm for zealous commitment and action. But Stetson fails to make a credible case--Lincoln doesn't seem so bad, and Stanton doesn't seem so good. Lincoln is supposed to be a corrupt politician who no longer represents blacks, but his worst offense seems to be trying to garner white votes. And while Stanton is supposed to be an idealistic young dynamo, his ideas are vague and sentimental, summed up by his rhetorical question during his speech: "How do we get the love back?"
The cast in this Pegasus Players production, under the direction of Jonathan Wilson, are able actors who put a nice naturalistic gloss on the trite dialogue. Crawford is particularly adept at suggesting the fawning servility of Brandon Carrington. Myers creates an aura of sagacity as the newspaper editor; and despite some faltering moments, Vernon-Reed Bulluck presents real estate developer Preston Gherard as a rank opportunist.
But Wilson and Barr, despite their strong, forthright deliveries, can't endow Lincoln and Stanton with believable personalities. The actors seem as confused by their characters as Stetson apparently was by them.