For many young men in our favorite dramas, self-discovery means finding a way out from under the shadow of the father. But when strong, silent Dad shifts from the shadows to center stage, we get to climb the branches of the family tree that are less frequently grasped.
In this DC premiere of Jackie Alexander’s new play, dads do more than step forward — they practically overrun the house. Marcus (Joshua Nelson), a Louisiana high-schooler caught in a scuffle with street dealers over some lost dope, has no fewer than three father figures watching over him. His story, scarred as it is by trauma, is surprisingly comforting as a result — a big warm hug of a family morality tale, as softly sincere and evenly stitched as a hand-me-down quilt.
Marcus’s dad Ira (Daron P. Stewart) and granddad Papa Melvin (Tom Howell) do their best to watch out for him, although “best” is a matter of debate. Melvin may have been blinded in Vietnam, but he can see perfectly clearly that Ira can’t keep continued watch over Marcus while he’s working multiple jobs and staying out late to meet women. Ira, naturally, pushes back against his old man’s criticism, even as he attempts a similar reckoning with his own son. It’s a house of men, through and through — although we learn a bit about Marcus’s mother through phone calls, Alexander’s focus is squarely on African-American fathers and son, and the hurdles of life in the modern South.
Soon enough, though, the study wraps its central family in a larger history. Ira and Melvin’s life stories, while engaging enough, aren’t the stuff of legend. That title’s reserved for dad number three: a mysterious old friend of Melvin who shows up one night out of the blue. The stranger, named Buster Neal (Y. Mustafaa Madyun), might as well walk with wings, so masterfully does he play the guardian angel.
Marcus, we quickly see, is the one who needs to be rescued — something Buster attempts with uncanny wisdom and streaks of clairvoyance. By the time Marcus learns his lessons about responsibility, trust, and independent thinking, so have Ira and Melvin. Once the mess has been made tidy, off strides tall, trench-coated Buster, back down the street and into the night.
Who was that masked man, anyway? The fact that he shares his name with Marcus’s great-great-grandfather (whom we see in the prologue, defiant against a mob of Klan members) isn’t just a coincidence. Buster’s appearance is, in fact, not only an arrival but a return. And in keeping with the rest of Alexander’s pretty, soft-hearted show, this touch of minor magic realism isn’t so much a dramatic revelation as a continuous, winking assurance that all will turn out all right.
The Legend of Buster Neal debuted at The Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn last season as part of Alexander’s three-play residency there. Content and characters varied across those three plays, but they added up to a multifaceted study of personal, familial, and social responsibility. “With this trilogy,” Alexander said last year, “I want to share my belief that the best way for the African/Caribbean community or any community for that matter, to thrive, is for those within it to make valuing each other a priority.”
Given the goal, Buster Neal succeeds overwhelmingly, and though nothing particularly provocative surfaces, the ride is clean, clear, and comfortable. Director Tre Garrett has knitted together the ensemble (which includes two additional strong performances from Rico Romalus Parker and Akil Williams) to rich ends. The front-porch set, designed by Sean Urbantke, effectively uses tossed leaves, cut-away walls, and hints of doorways to create a careworn home with a whisper of ghostliness to it.
Alexander tosses a few momentary surprises into the mix — enough to twist and turn us through a well-played final showdown — but in nearly every scene, the life lessons are laid on unapologetically thick. This isn’t a world where people have trouble saying what they mean. Dad’s advice, even when it comes late, is always articulate and comprehensive, unburdened by petty pride or miscommunication.
But with talented performers, and a nimble touch from Garrett throughout, these expressions of honor are genuine enough to touch us. The point, for all the once and future parents out there, is simple and pure: lead by example. Spot your own faults, and be that rare role model brave enough to fix them. We may not inhabit this particular world, where ancestors walk right up onto the front porch to greet us. But with hopeful thoughts, and a little leg up, we can still climb to reach them.
The Legend of Buster Neal has two remaining performances, Nov 25 and 26 at 7:30pm at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
The Legend of Buster Neal
Written by Jackie Alexander
Directed by Tre Garrett
Produced by African Continuum Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 95 min with one intermission