Are you ready to be old? By that I mean are you ready to sell your home, where you’ve lived for fifty years and raised your family, and go…elsewhere? To lay aside your lifetime friends, and the pursuits you love and finally have the leisure to enjoy — a lazy breakfast at the local diner, your bowling league, a card game with your buddies — and instead go to the tiny confines of an institution, or the not-quite-welcoming arms of a son who is also, in a sense, an adversary? Are you ready to become small? And all because you happened to leave the stove on once or twice, or because you happened to slip and fall, and didn’t bother to get up from the floor for forty-eight hours?
Me neither. But James Anthony Tyler’s small, exquisitely observed and rendered Some Old Black Man — like our aging bodies — lets no one off the hook. Donald is an 82-year-old man in the grip of failing health. His cholesterol is high; he wheezes and gurgles and is occasionally struck by crippling pain which compels him to sit down — even when he is in the middle of a tirade against Calvin, his son and host.
The generation gap wasn’t an invention of the sixties. Every generation is estranged from the next by the difference in our frames of reference. You might love your adult children to bits, but you cannot fully understand them, or they, you. We are formed by experiences we had in common with people of our own generation. So it is with Donald (Phil McGlaston), who grew up picking cotton and driving a taxi, and loved eating fried foods with his late wife and his dissolute brother Willie, and Calvin (Wendell Pierce), a professor of English literature at NYU and a graduate of Northwestern and Columbia who keeps an immaculate apartment in the Danish Modern style and eats a yogurt parfait for breakfast.
But this play isn’t called Some Old Man, it’s called Some Old Black Man, and the driving force of the play is the different ways in which the two men experienced white hatred. Donald was born in 1934 or 1935 (the play is set in 2017). Calvin’s age is not given, but he is young enough to be Donald’s son and old enough to remember watching Clay-Liston I, which was in 1962, so I’m guessing he was born circa 1956. Donald is old enough to remember, and recount in horrifying detail, what happened in 1939 Mississippi when a crowd of white people set on a black man and tore him to pieces for looking at a white woman.
Calvin married a white woman.
The two men are both widowers, and so do not have the mediating suasions of their empathetic wives (and it is clear from the text that Ruby Mae and Teresa constantly moderated their husbands’ worst instincts) to prevent them from going after each other hammer and tongs. Since age rages, in Dylan Thomas’ good phrase, against the dying of the light, Donald is the aggressor, and an uninhibited one at that. He has lost his home and his way of life, and he is damned if he’s also going to lose his argument with his son. McGlaston gives us the man in full; a dignified and powerful man in danger of losing his power and his dignity, sometimes sly and witty, sometimes fierce and volcanic; angry enough not to realize he is in mourning.
Pierce, a New York actor and producer who some of you may know plays the lawyer father of the character played by her-highness-to-be Meaghan Markle in the television drama “Suits” (or for his fine work in the HBO series “Treme”), strikes a more subdued note. He is a man who has invited his past to come live with his present, and he seems to be having second thoughts. Calvin, who is so fully assimilated into his predominantly white academic world that he teaches “The Italian-American Literary Experience”, is a buttoned-down man, whose armor masks pain and joy with equal facility. But his father (like all fathers) knows where the pressure points are, and soon the bitterness and rage come pouring out of the son. Calvin has experienced racism which was not as violent as the racism Donald experienced, but just as vile.
In a way, Clay-Liston I serves as an appropriate metaphor for this show. In that fight, Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, the Greatest of All Time, stung the huge, menacing Liston time after time until the bewildered fighter quit on his stool at the start of the 7th round. Here, Calvin and Donald jab and feint, jab and feint, until one of them quits on his stool.
In the production I saw, there was a little bit of tentativeness, particularly on Pierce’s part. This may have been in part because McGlaston is an understudy, and the two actors may not have had as much time working together as they would have preferred. The role of Donald was originally played by the fine actor Roger Robinson, a Tony winner for his role as Bynum Walker in the 2009 production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson was ill and could not appear. Mr. McGlaston looks a little young to play an 82-year-old man but attacks the role with such satisfying aggressiveness that this becomes a non-issue three minutes into the production.
Producers Pemberley Productions and Michael Wolkowitz stage this production in 59E59’s third-story theater, a venue roughly the size of the DC Arts Center. A sign on the wall says the capacity of the room is 114, but I do not know if that includes the actors. The staging is so intimate that you will feel like you could reach down and grab a spoonful of that yogurt parfait yourself. (I strongly recommend against doing so). This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the authenticity of the dialogue and the skill of the performers. In this particular play, it is a very good thing indeed.
Some Old Black Man continues its nearly sold out run through March 4, 2018 at 59E59, at 59 East 59th Street in New York.
Details and tickets
Some Old Black Man by James Anthony Tyler, directed by Joe Cacaci, featuring Wendell Pierce and Phil McGalston . Scenic design by Carl Sprague . Lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson; associate lighting designer Jason Fox . Costume design by Stella Giulietta Schwartz; associate costume designer Maryellen Riccio . Technical manager Maia Robbins-Zust . Casting by Pat McCorkle, McCorkle Casting Ltd . Tiffany N. Robinson, assisted by Seth Diggs, was the stage manager . Produced by Michael Wolkowitz and Pemberley Productions . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Note: The reviewer wishes to acknowledge the help of Jonathan Mandell in researching this review.