By Dana Yeaton
Directed by Lou Bellamy
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
What do Emily Dickenson, iambic pentameter, and modern poetry have to do with a bunch of newly recruited black college football players, itching to make the next great play and score with a “just gimme the ball, dammit” mentality? These are just a few of the many elements mixed in cuisinart whirling speed in Round House’s Silver Spring production of redshirts.
Instead of getting a splattering mess, all the stories fall in line – the entire back lineup squad trying valiantly to pass freshmen English, the no-nonsense English Professor up for tenure, the assistant coach trying to be mentor and guardian while keeping watch over his own lucrative position, even the do-gooder teaching assistant has a story.
As master craftsman, playwright Dana Yeaton carefully connects all the elements into a seamless flow, and to top it off, the narrator, appropriately named Dante, bee-bops his explanatory interludes in, get this, busta-rhyme iambic pentameter. The play is terrific, are you feeling me?
Football is everything to these guys, the workout, the practice, getting approval from the coach. The world revolves around making the next play which is exquisitely portrayed with crackling energy throughout the production. The athletes struggle to meet their academic requirements together, like a band of brothers. Each has a special connection with Tori, the English tutor, well played by Kimberly Gilbert who handles their jostling, and testosterone filled escapades with a comfortable, non-plussed nonchalance-just don’t get her started on social injustice or infringement of personal rights because she will take you down, harder than a sack on the field.
The battle royale between the coach and the English instructor is a dynamic exploration of intellectual integrity, fairness, and ethics, in the context of what really is best for these young men, in the short and long run. Along with the standard academics vs. jocks’ tensions, the English professor and coach are buffeted by arguments of reason and fairness on all fronts. Still, they stand their ground speaking truth to power, putting their own livelihoods on the line to do the right thing – which, from their impassioned explanations, could go either way.
Regina Marie Williams plays Prof Bigelow with ferocious intensity packaged in a still quiet manner, while James Craven pulls out all stops as Coach Tyrell Moore, reviewing the stop-frame plays, going ballistic like a drill sergeant, busting his own rusty moves to charm the professor, even serving as pitiful stop-gap English tutor, anything to get the guys up to code and pass the make-up exam, to keep them from being redshirts – on the roster but can’t play the season.
Some sections of the production have explosive spurts of energy, like everybody is cranked up on a high octane sports drink. The guys are so comfortable with each other, smacking each other around in a ham-fisted rough-housing manner, playfully in the first act, and with something to prove later on. For whatever reason, it’s not usual to see that kind of youthful playful carousing among young black men on stage without a stereotyped “hood” threatening undertone, so this is quite refreshing to see.
All the players are standouts-James T. Alfred plays Dante with a blustering, cocky swagger and plenty of attitude; the appealing Cedric Mays, last seen at recent Theater Alliance productions, plays his counterpoint Jahzeel Wilson, with a persuasive sensitivity reading Bible scriptures to help him tackle and interpret the sometimes foreign language of poetry. Ahanti Young imbues his character Curtis with a single and simple-minded focus, whether it’s lifting weights beyond his endurance or playing Russian roulette with his own health to stay in the game, and Will Sallee, “the token white guy” relays a touching need to belong.
With so many back-stories and language styles swirling around, the playwright keeps his eye on the ball emphasizing the value of relationships, taking a stand for one’s belief, and standing by a friend in need, no matter what the consequence. The writing and the structure of the play are so tight that the bond between the players could just as easily be seen in a fox hole or on the battle field.
The video projections by Martin Gwinup, sound and video designer, were also outstanding, mainly because of the innovative way the technology is used. The large background screen depicted various scenes from actual football plays on the field, scenes from outside a dormitory, and a particularly remarkable shot from a college office, including shadowed window pane grids. I honestly could not tell those weren’t actually windows until they faded into a different projection. The numbered playing field fragment on the floor was too artificially bright so it comes across as chinsy, but the sliding set pieces shifting from off stage (set design by C. Lance Brockman) effectively changed the setting as quickly as the projections faded to another scene. The entire production is in tip-top form and relevant, topped off with a funky drumline beat.
Through it all, the power of language shines through in all its brilliance. Yeaton is definitely in command with a provocative script equally matched by the resourceful director, Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the co-producing Penumbra Theater Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. Penumbra was founded in 1976 to make socially responsible art, producing theater “that roared with authenticity through the unrestrained and rich voices of black artists and playwrights.”
This Round House selection of redshirts, which follows the beautifully rendered Lessons Before Dying at the Bethesda mainstage, along with its Community Dialogue on Issues of Race and Social justice in America are all admirable reflections of the social consciousness of the new producing artistic director Blake Robison, who has not only proven he’s filled some big shoes left by Jerry Whiddon, but he’s even gotten himself a brand new pair.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with intermission
Where: Round House in Silver Spring. 8641 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring
When: Thru November 11 Th. Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm
Tickets: $25- $50
Info: call 240-644-1100 or visit the website