by Seret Scott
directed by Mary Hall Surface
produced by Tribute Productions at Atlas Performing Arts Center
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
What happens to a love deferred? Like dreams, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Not exactly, according to Seret Scott’s play Second Line. Scott’s two characters live through the turmoil and upheaval of the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, national leader assassinations and even bits of the fire next time, all while spiraling around each other with unwavering love and devotion, unable to settle comfortably in each other’s lives.
Narrated principally through the voice and lense of Bennie (Jefferson A. Russell), the story relates how the couple bonded as students at Penn State with almost love at first sight intensity. JoJo (Erika Rose) is a silent object of affection, that is, until she finds her voice protesting for racial justice. Until then, she’s so entrenched in reactor mode, she’s just a gesture away from mime. That changes suddenly when she finds herself compelled to sit-in, strike, march on Washington, anything and everything in the name of justice. In fact, JoJo develops such an inexplicable urgency to make a difference and help the downtrodden disenfranchised masses that she quits school and takes leave from her beloved. Determined to make it as a financial broker, Bennie challenges her motivations, argues for her to stay and finish the “fight” she started by getting her degree, forcefully proposing that she battle injustice with education, and stay with him during the most difficult time of his academic career, finishing and defending his thesis.
Scott presents a nexus of struggles of Bennie’s personal academic challenges, the nation’s racial upheaval, social struggle and unrest, all which contribute to JoJo’s urgings to go where she’s most needed, where she belongs. She extracts herself from Bennie and starts her journey training fellow Freedom Fighters in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, and she recounts the very real life-threatening dangers to fellow “warriors” who often, like her, left the comforts of home to put their lives on the line for freedom and justice. Addressing the audience directly like a room full of fresh new freedom rider recruits, she provides safety tips when being mauled by ferocious attack dogs, demonstrates how to drop down and assume the fetal position to protect vital organs from stomps and kicks, and shares personal stories about how tremendous water pressure from fire hoses can rupture spleens and damage livers.
It’s an ambitious attempt to embed the drama of a personal relationship within the tumultuous civil rights struggle, the mounting tensions escalating their own differences. Unfortunately, the arguments about whether JoJo should go or stay are heartfelt without feeling particularly genuine because we don’t know enough about her motivation. She just has this unfathomable need to go and to serve. When she sings the refrain from “We are soldiers in the Army” about fighting and dying, she knows she’s only a well placed punch away from being a casualty for the cause. Erika Rose embodies the character with warmth and strong conviction. Still, providing just a little bit more to flesh out her character’s motivation would have helped us to understand, appreciate, and care that she took on such risk. As if the Mississippi Delta were not enough, JoJo also accepts an “offer” to help the cause as a social worker in Vietnam. Again, lacking a defining purpose or revealing hint about her psychological urgings reduce her actions to peripatetic wanderings from cause to cause instead of strong intentions filled with integrity. Bennie accuses her of running just for sake of it admonishing that she’s running from something instead of towards her spouted life purpose, but again, the script does not elaborate. It’s a lot to deal with without much of an anchor.
The same can be said about the enduring, endearing, yet frustrating relationship between the two. Their initial arguments all center around Bennie’s disapproval of JoJo’s choice to leave, he spouts concern about her safety, welfare and her well being, but when they finally see each other after several years, all he can do is spew out bitter and caustic comments about her abandoning him. There is so little tenderness in that scene, it’s enough to make you wonder what they saw in each other in the first place, which, again, was not really clear. Being among a handful of black students “in a sea of whiteness” is not enough to explain why their embers of love smoldered through their life experiences for decades.
While the script is uneven in some spots, taken as a whole, Second Line is enormously relevant and surprisingly effective, particularly the staging by director Mary Hall Surface who takes full advantage of the multi-leveled platform, set design by Tony Cisek and terrific lighting by Dan Covey to propel the story. The title comes from the animated dance steps performed at a New Orleans funeral procession-animated, strutting, clapping, and singing-with roots in the African tradition of appeasing the spirits to send off a loved one home to glory. Here the term is used for particularly heroic warriors, where the participants “second lined their spirit to another world.” Bennie organized monthly volunteer sessions with the cleaning staff guiding their efforts to achieve financial solvency, and thus aligned his walk with his talk or mantra that “education is a weapon.” Through the script, Scott indicates that commitment to others, each in his/her own way, assures us all a place as foot soldiers fighting social injustice. What we do while on the front line or behind the scenes is up to us.
Running Time: 1:30, no intermission
When: Thru October 26. Wednesday – Saturday at 8, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 3pm
Where: Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab Theatre II, 1333 H Street, N.E., Washington, DC
Call: 202-399-7993 or consult the website.