Monday, October 22, 2012

Where To Be Merry: Fraternity @ The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center

Originally reviewed for the Black N LA website, October 2012

For the first time ever, playwright
Jeff Stetson’s Fraternity has found its way to Los Angeles. Directed by Henry Miller (James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner) and presented by the Ebony Repertory Theatre (ERT) at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, this political drama runs through October 28th.

Over the span of several months in 1987, seven successful men congregate in an exclusive private club to discuss important issues of the past, present and future: upcoming Senatorial elections, a pending club member application, the dark aftermath of the Alabama church bombing that killed four girls…

Through quick-witted verbal exchanges and heart-wrenching monologues, Fraternity moodily reveals how these issues threaten to violently break the fragile relationships and social structures that these men have worked so hard to build and maintain.

The two-act play opens with Rev. Wilcox (Harvey Blanks) and musician-turned-teacher “Turk” (Robert Gossett) comfortably lounging in the club, which is only accessible for affluent African-American men. Minutes later, the scrupulous venture capitalist Preston Gherard (William Allen Young) and his longtime friend and tennis partner, the authoritative Senator Charles Lincoln, energetically glide in, with the publisher of the town’s only black newspaper, Turner Greystone (Mel Winkler), not far behind.

Thus begins the playful banter and friendly jabs that carry throughout the production, only to be interrupted when conflict arises – conflict that’s often in relation to two other men: Senatorial candidate Paul Stanton (Rocky Carroll) and prospective club member Brandon Carrington (Nasir Najieb). While both are promising leaders of the next generation, they are as opposite as can be, with Stanton representing change and new directions, and Carrington representing longstanding traditions. Their presence threatens the familiar bond between Wilcox, “Turk,” Gherard, Lincoln and Greystone, as the two young men unintentionally force the five older men to grapple with unresolved matters and an uncertain future.

Credit must be given to the actors for their impeccable performances, both on an individual level and through their interactions with one another. The natural chemistry between them feels comforting and compelling, giving the strong impression that they’ve shared an unbreakable friendship for ages. Yet as their allegiances to one another are tested, each man individually – and quite poignantly – brings to surface his innermost, private thoughts and feelings. Behind the commanding image of Senator Lincoln is a mere man, deeply wounded by the growing lack of faith in his leadership; behind the cool, laidback profile of “Turk” is a grieving father whose pain is so deep that it interferes with his ability to continue pursuing his dreams. Indeed, it feels as though we are privy to the more vulnerable sides of humanity not always seen in portrayals of strong African-American men: despair, bitterness, grief, angst, insecurity, hopelessness.

Fraternity also challenges the definition of success through its presentation of imperfect leaders. At first glance, all appear to be the crème de la crème – self-made men who have fought against a racist system to become wealthy and/or influential not jut in the black community, but in mainstream society as well. The young Carrington (pictured right in the picture above) graduated at the top of his law school class; the shrewd businessman Gherard can write $20,000 checks without so much as a blink of an eye. But perhaps that’s not enough. Perhaps, the drama hints, there is more to success than riches and intelligence. As the men become more and more immersed in the conflicts that surround them, their heroic images crumble, and what’s left behind is the truth: they haven’t lived up to their full potential – they’ve been too busy nursing deferred dreams or living contently in complacency; they’ve been plagued by greed, lack of self-identity and insatiable power struggles.

As genuine emotions are expressed and the men’s true identities finally emerge, Fraternity poses a complex question: is the older generation willing and ready to pass the torch to the next generation, even if that means the relationships and social structures they have grown accustomed to might change? Some want Stanton (pictured right in the photo) to win over Lincoln (pictured left in the photo) because he represents change; others want Carrington to join the club because he will carry on their legacy. And in the midst of it all, some contemplate whether they personally met their ancestors’ expectations when the torch had been passed to them decades ago.

What starts as a casual afternoon, with five friends relaxing in the comforts of the club they worked so hard to create, quickly turns into an unforgettable journey where men are forced to finally assess whether or not they’ve been men – and also human. Fraternity’s honest and grippingly raw approach tells their story in a simplistic old boys’ club setting, filled to the brim with the silent complexities of their past and their connected relationships. The play stirs up more questions than it necessarily answers, but it also captivates and provokes candid thoughts and emotions that will remain with you well after its two-hour run.


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