It’s surprising how quickly a time period can be captured with a few props, boom box, land line phone and some huge Afro wigs. This world premiere by the talented Kara Lee Corthron is filled with sights and sounds from the 1970’s era, along with the ubiquitous thumping of the beat, and inklings of staccato rhythms just inches away from busting out in the rhymes and flow of desperation, the fertile nascent brooding period that incubated hip hop.
Corthron’s piece, Welcome to Fear City, hints at that while she focuses on families and friends dealing with life struggles of survival in the South Bronx: a talented conscientious young fellow trying to keep his family afloat on grocery clerk wages, a brilliant sister who escaped to California dreams only to slink back defeated and dejected, and Mom, ready and willing to booty pop to the Max, when her coughing emphysema fits allow.
Dyllon Burnside plays the bookish budding poet, “E” with notebook constantly at the ready to be filled with life observations. Every time he gets a chance at the mic at the neighborhood house party with his buddy played by Bryce Michael Wood, we wonder if this will finally be his shout out to the world that will take hold and make it Big. But the time is in a rut after the Last Poets and before Biggie Smalls and Tupac, after the riots of the 60’s but before urban funk bitch-slapped the down beat.
So E’s meek observations just sit there without a flow. He’s a master technician, however, and can do anything with an electrical wire. So, from an unlikely interchange on the street with an unscrupulous insurance mogul, E is enticed to blow up an abandoned building for more cash than he’s seen in a lifetime.
Who is his conscience that keeps him wavering? A walking talking life observant rat.
Okay, here’s where the piece veers into magical thinking terrain without leaving cheese crumbs for anyone to quite know what’s going on, but the beat goes on.
Besides, it’s a treat to see Yaegel T. Welch in anything, and he channels life messages as the rodent with energy, earnestness and glee.
I caught Corthron’s fascinating Holly Down in Heaven produced by Forum, where she exhibited her tremendous gifts of establishing characters within a specific context and tone. Here, she demonstrates great promise with poetic language and establishing well-rounded characters. However, placing them in a horrific historical setting of New York tenements burning to the ground in the summer of 1977 adds so many additional layers the focus gets blurred in the haze of covering so much territory, analyzing the conditions, and explaining how and why the events are happening.
Welcome to Fear City
closes July 30, 2017
Details and tickets
The play barely touches on the harsh realities before zipping along. Besides, E seems to be the last person on earth to make the decisions to commit the act that he does. He’s a caring son, brother, friend and also a bonafide nerd who doesn’t want anyone hurt. But neither did the Weathermen in trying to make a political statement. E makes scary choices that result in catastrophic events, but the potentially tragic consequences stay neatly outside of the script—otherwise it would turn too dark and morbid for the funky-beat.
Corthron tries her best to keep her feet firmly planted on two sides – telling an endearing family neighborhood story complete with a Jewish deli and open-mic house parties, while exploring the historical reality of the New York city blackouts where entire swatches of tenement real estate went up in flames over the course of those sweltering months. Underneath it all, new rhythms and rhymes periodically crop up reflecting the insistent beat of disaffected youth. It’s a lot to cover, and something has to give — as can be seen in the unsettled ending that again has promise and points to poignant circumstances today, but ultimately devolves abruptly into a free-fall like a tossed mic.
Obviously a work in progress, Welcome to Fear City does well with what it does best, showcasing talent and providing a glimpse into the relatively recent past shedding light on the genesis of today’s urban music scene. That’s apparently enough for the play to take off like wildfire with production plans already in the works in Kansas City next year and others beyond. It’s got promise, terrific characters, a Harvey-sized smart-alicky rat, and a funky downbeat. Here’s hoping that this world premiere showcase will help sharpen its intent and focus to deliver a cogent theater experience.
Welcome to Fear City by Kara Lee Corthron . Directed by Nicole A. Watson . Actors: Yaegel T.Welch, Cherene Snow, Vincent Ramirez, Adrian Kiser, Dyllon Burnside, Bryce Michael Wood, Knightley Hill, Kevin Minor . Set design: Frank J. Oliva . Costume design: Trevor Bowen . Lighting design: Tony Galaska . Sound design –Justin Ellington . Production Stage Manager: Lori M. Doyle . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Debbie M. Jackson.