Hang Tough | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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ETA Creative Arts Foundation

Judge Douglas Ginsburg may yet prove to be a historic figure of our era. You remember Ginsburg, the conservative, law-and-order Supreme Court nominee who withdrew his nomination after reports surfaced that he had smoked marijuana. There was no communist conspiracy here. And certainly no coercion. The man apparently smoked because he wanted to. For simple pleasure.

Pleasure is often overlooked as a motive for drug use. This is not to say that people should do drugs, especially impressionable youth. My point is that the crusades to prevent drug abuse are often so simplistic as to seem ridiculous in the eyes of their intended audience.

Which is the case with Hang Tough, a basketball musical written by Useni Eugene Perkins, with a musical score by Ernest McCarty. Intent on providing versatile, creative role models for black youth, it was ultimately memorable only as a plodding "Don't Do Drugs" campaign set to forgettable music.

According to director Songodina Ifatunji's statement in the playbill, the play "attacks a chronic problem in the African-American community. Our youth are being preyed upon and exploited by dream brokers who enticed athletes away from normal well-rounded development as students." That might have been the basis for an interesting, and valuable, story: given the lack of jobs available to inner-city youth, and the resulting soaring unemployment for black teenagers (and for black men of all ages), the need would seem to be great for realistic role models who compete on the basis of their minds, not their muscles. (As a sports fan, I'm continually embarrassed by the "star" athletes of any color who can barely talk and are known to be unable to read their team's playbook. Basic education for all athletes clearly is in order.)

Hang Tough provides some entertainment in the first act, but it then becomes hopelessly enmeshed in trite, predictable resolutions to difficult problems. The play follows Johnny (J.J. McCormick), a high school basketball phenom. Oddly enough, he seems to be sought after by only one college basketball program. This oversight (among others) is never explained, though it may be due to the machinations of his coach (Cliff Frazier), who secretly schemes to land Johnny a scholarship, and himself an assistant coaching position, at prestigious New York University. The two seem chosen by destiny except that, of late, Johnny has been playing sluggish ball. The coach, concerned, believes (as he sings to Johnny) that everything rests on the upcoming championship game--just one week away. Winning is everything, especially when NYU's coach, the General (Mario Andre) will be watching.

Johnny, though, is distracted by other developments in his life. If he goes to NYU, then the General will pay for the expensive treatments required by Johnny's father, gravely ill with cancer. But Johnny will not attend any college that does not also offer a scholarship to his lifelong basketball partner, Scooter (Kevin Woulard). Scooter, the brains of the pair, wants to be a doctor. He's a hardworking student and athlete from a poor family for whom a college scholarship offers the only hope. Unfortunately, his basketball does not match up to Johnny's, and the prospects for an athletic scholarship are dim.

Johnny is also troubled by the drug-overdose death of his basketball hero, Benny Hicks (Songodina Ifatunji in a thinly disguised portrait of Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star who died of a cocaine overdose a year and a half ago). The first scene of the play is an interview with Hicks (still alive and famous). When the interviewer asks him about the temptations to do drugs, Hicks delivers the play's first song, singing "You've got to hang tough."

To top it all off, there's this nagging English test that Johnny has flunked. And (can you believe it?) if he flunks it again, he will become ineligible for the upcoming championship game.

What's a guy to do with all this pressure? Obviously, try to relax and have a little fun. But Johnny's attractive girlfriend, Patricia (Eva Durham), says no--singing, if you love me, then "don't take me now."

The result is that Johnny's got no outlet for his mounting tensions, and ends up whining through most of the play (this seemed the play's predominant emotional note). Most of the male characters are, to put it simply, complainers--from the coach who desperately needs a championship victory to bring him a job outside of the inner city, to Scooter, who, admirable though he is, still mopes about his poor chances at a scholarship. The male characters are also played with little depth; the actors choose instead to mug and wildly overplay their roles. Andre's General was the most extreme; he played the dour man in a continual yell, complete with clenched fists and stern face. In his chanting tones (meant to pass for singing), he likens basketball to war and declares his need for "hungry" players who will fight to win at any cost. The result is a character who is too easy to dismiss, thus tidily solving Johnny's dilemma about going to school without Scooter (who dies anyway, of a drug overdose, which furher clarifies Johnny's decision).

In contrast, the women in the show were real, developed characters. Charlotte Foster as Linda, Johnny's English teacher and the coach's sometime romantic interest (he tries to woo her so she will give Johnny a passing grade), was fun to watch and gave the most detailed performance of the show. I liked, and felt that I learned the most about, her character. Eva Durham was also strong as Patricia, and though it was often hard to hear her, she carried off her songs naturally.

To be fair, the script was a factor in the women's stronger performances. In this particular morality play, the teacher and the girlfriend are the protectors of values. Theirs are more complete characters, written to argue convincingly against the men's narrow pursuit of athletic success. When Patricia sings that Johnny doesn't have to be a superstar to impress her, she's believable even though she's corny.

Songodina Ifatunji's direction was inconsistent, especially during the frequent songs, when the actors often seemed at a loss for movement: they looked as uncomfortable as I imagine I'd feel if one of my friends suddenly burst into song in the locker room. It's not normal behavior (at least where I grew up), and it didn't look normal on the ETA stage.

Hang Tough has set itself an important goal--addressing the pressing problems of youth within the black community. But few teenagers were in sight on the recent Friday night when I saw it. And the adults there, I would guess, already know that any addiction--whether to basketball or drugs--inhibits full development. The lack of young people in the audience, as well as the stock portrayals and easy solutions to complex problems, made this show seem like preaching to the choir, to the converted. It isn't enough merely to chant slogans, however good the cause. With so many varieties of entertainment competing for people's attention, the problems of youth call for a more compelling, believable vision.

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