The tagline for Cracked is “Love. Faith. Motorcycles,” but bikers be warned: this is not the wind-in-your-hair anthem that you might expect. Nor is it a biographical examination of masculinity and fatherhood, as playwright and director Marcus Salley attests in his program note. Cracked is not what The Rude Mechanicals of Fredericksburg describe—but what the play actually is may still be worth watching.
Salley’s inspiration for this family drama was his One Man Motorcycle Gang S.O.B. grandfather, the infamous but beloved Willie “Chick” Bailey. Cracked, the first in his Broken Mirror Trilogy, presents Willie as a young, proud, damaged young man, following his early courtship with the playwright’s future grandmother. Willie, surprisingly, is on the periphery of this play, however; Cracked is less his story than it is that of a flawed, struggling, growing family—and the family in question isn’t even Willie’s, but rather that of his future wife, Gale.
While this broader focus makes for a more complex web of characters, it is a shame that the production cannot take full advantage of its protagonist actor’s charms. Roody Labaze perfectly encapsulates the twinkly-eyed ladies man with deeply buried insecurities and fears. The scenes in which he is featured, while disappointingly few, are the unequivocal highlights of the production. They are only exceeded when he is joined by Ashlee James as Gale, the wife-to-be. James’ earnestness and strength shine through a somewhat underdeveloped ingénue character, and the battle of wits and dreams between her and Labaze are crackling.
The lovers are joined by a robust lineup of players, including Gale’s large, crowded family. The rest of the performances are wildly uneven; they range from a heartfelt if overly loud father (Henry, played by playwright Salley) to endearing but sometimes lackluster siblings (Roddyanne Labaze as Margaret, Gladys Perkins as Loretta, and Meaux Nowlin as Douglas). The production’s secret weapon doesn’t emerge until the climax, when Willie’s supposed witch of a mother (Gladys Perkins) appears to deliver what is by far the most eloquent, moving speech in the play.
Written and directed by Marcus Salley
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With this title-dropping speech as its driving force, Cracked is undeniably full of heart. The story itself is unfocused at times, as the confused marketing evidences; it bounces from didacticism and religious diatribes to wry humor and family secrets. It ultimately feels like an afterschool television special in which family drama erupts, secrets are revealed, and everyone learns a lesson via an inspirational speech—all within 30 (or in this case 70) minutes. The script isn’t quite robust enough to justify such a run time, and if it weren’t for the messy transitions and sometimes awkward pacing, the production could run much more fluidly.
Cracked is presented via fairly traditional staging, including blackout transitions and offstage eavesdropping as a plot device. There are a few imaginative storytelling moments, most memorably when Gale reflects on her first date with Willie and his memory appears to present the tenderness and sparkle of their interaction. Other elements, particularly the rambling commentary from Gale’s sisters and the stylistically confused transition music, don’t quite land—but these unpolished moments are usually alleviated by an eloquent moment of dialogue or sneakily winning smile from Willie.
Cracked doesn’t so much end as is cut off, presumably to segue into the next two plays in the trilogy. On its own, the pay off from this family narrative is underwhelming, despite the obvious artistic sincerity. This is ultimately still a touching story about the scars and complexities of family lineage, told through a personal and unique lens. Cracked may not have the force and drive of its taglined motorcycle, but it has plenty of love and faith.
Cracked. Playwright/Director: Marcus Salley. Cast: Roody Labaze, Ashlee’ James, Maurice Nowlin, Gladys Perkins, Marcus Salley, Jasmine Baker, Lauryn Hobbs, Roodyanne Labaze. Reviewed by Maegan Clearwood.