It’s uncanny when an actor comes on stage and tells you exactly what will happen when you leave the theater that evening. Then again, lots of things about This is Not A Time Bomb are unsettling.
It begins when Edward Daniels tells us we will probably leave the theater and have a conversation, but what will take place is simply a story.
The tale is profound in its ability to confront relevant issues: not only those of race and privilege but also integrity and entitlement. It’s beautifully acted by a cast of five young performers: Daniels as Jerrod, Tom Carman as Sam, Alex Vaughan as Dustin, Dana Levanovsky as Victoria, and Kristin Rogers as Laura.
Sam and Dustin are white and wealthy. They enjoy smoking pot and hanging out. Jerrod is black, from the projects, and attends the same school as Sam and Dustin on scholarship. He is also dating Dustin’s sister Victoria. There’s something incongruous about the guys’ friendship: Sam loves hip-hop and wears the baggie jeans, a baseball hat and ecko tee. Jerrod wears similar clothes, but lives in a completely different neighborhood. Dustin dresses in a preppy fashion, speaks with a touch of arrogance, and tends to flaunt his wealth. His sister is a nightmarish mix of materialism and self-centeredness. Much of the first act consists of these four characters harassing and mocking one another as they get high. Sam has just been suspended from their school for selling a bag of weed, and seems obsessed with visiting Jerrod’s home in the projects. Initially this expedition is about an essay Sam wants to write about hip-hop coming from the projects, but when Sam discovers that Dustin has been to Jerrod’s home, Sam gets fixated on this trip.
When Jerrod lashes out belligerently, screaming and intimidating Sam, the chill vibe in the room disappears. The tense moment pierces the air like a gunshot, then Jerrod shrugs it off and says “There. Took you to my neighborhood. You happy?”
The timing of their dialogue — Jerrod’s rapid-fire switch from casual to intense coupled with Sam’s earnestness — is stunning.
The plot twists when a deal is offered: if Sam calls a girl he likes and she visits their gathering, Jerrod will take him to his home. Laura shows up and introduces a more three- dimensional character. She is likeable, smart, perceptive. When Jerrod and Victoria leave the room to find a bed, Dustin makes his way to the kitchen and Sam and Laura are left alone. Sam’s attempts to kiss her look more like kamikaze dives, and their interaction is endearing.
All hell breaks loose when Jerrod and Victoria return. To give details would destroy the unexpected turns that make the story so compelling.
There are no simple answers. In spite of their differences, competition and survival dominate the boys’ surroundings. In one setting, people will alienate an individual for using the wrong fork, and in the other a guy hustles blank CDs for $15. People everywhere use any means necessary to get ahead.
Does Jerrod have an advantage because he has come from the underprivileged background, attended an elite school, will likely get into a top college, and from there be accepted at any job he desires? Dustin’s line “What I wouldn’t give to be a charismatic black man” sounds strangely bitter in the first act. By the second act, the roles have shifted. Is Jerrod caught in an irreconcilable bind: taunted in the ghetto for attending a white school and treated as a token in the educational setting?
Friendships that appeared loyal and trustworthy look more like dependencies and shams in the second act. At one point Dustin quotes his father “Growing up is admitting that no one gives a damn about you,” and by the end of the play it is not clear which if any of the friendships survived the night.
Although hip-hop remains present in some of the dialogue and acoustically in the background, its role is secondary to the relationships of the characters. This is a story about advantage and disadvantage, tests of character and the pull of our pasts. Jerrod says “I got a right to be a dick,” as if his life in the projects is an excuse to be nasty and confrontational.
His character is cruel; Victoria is despicable, and Sam seems painfully naïve and confused. In spite of these less than attractive qualities, the play is riveting. It exposes assumptions that underlie our decisions. It reveals stereotypes and misnomers. It explores the intersubjectivity that permeates our relationships and communication.
The actors are so believable that the script seems improvised at times, their dialogue so sincere that it is inevitable that tensions and anger build to the point of exploding into physical rage.
Sure enough, I left the theater with a friend and an intense conversation was soon underway.
This Is Not a Time Bomb
by Aaron Wigdor Levy
directed by Shirley Serotsky
produced by Source as part of the Week 3o of the 2010 Source Festival
reviewed by Kate Mattingly
This Is Not a Time Bomb performs again June 30 and July 3, 2010