There are two new plays about pairs of black men playing at two theaters 20 miles apart in the Berkshires this week. One is about middle-class homeowners and the scenes take place in a bar, a gym, and a church. The other has the two men stranded on the corner of a city street, sleeping and spending their entire day afraid to leave their block. There are many things that differentiate the two rooms and make them unique experiences, and a few that unite them, making comparisons more interesting.
Anthem by British actor and writer Lolita Chakrabarti (“Red Velvet”) is at Shakespeare & Co and was written during the pandemic and premiered online for the first time. The play opens at a funeral with Gil (Kevin Craig West) eulogizing his father in somewhat reserved and measured tones. Benny (“ranney”} stands to the side before approaching him to tell him that Gus was both of their fathers. Benny was born 6 days before Gil.
The play follows them through a year where they quickly confirm paternity and begin to get to know each other. Gil worked with his father in a paper mill, Jones and Sons, and Benny is 33 years old in logistics. They bond and swap family stories in a dozen blackout scenes set in bars, gyms and parties, all accompanied by R&B music ranging from Bill Withers to Will Smith to The Sugarhill Gang. Director Reggie Life made many great choices moving this piece from stage to stage on this minimal but effective Julianna Von Haubrich set and ramping up the tension as the timeline progressed. The piece is a fascinating twist that sometimes made me doubt the details but never lost my interest for a second.
The most intimate conversations are about money. Benny confesses that he only has $10,000 in savings and then quickly asks “Are you okay?” as if asking for approval. They shared lots of laughs, confidences and reassurances when Gil offered to go into business together and it feels like a proposal with all the jitters, excitement and fear that goes with it. What keeps the two men away from the American dream could be a self-defeating bet, a lack of preparation for the financial stakes they are playing for, or simply that the game is rigged against them.
Kevin Craig West cracks his suave shell in this role and opens up physically and emotionally, embracing the idea of having a brother. It’s like a dream come true for him that has him working out, rapping and maybe drinking more than he should. There are great reservoirs of feelings that open up in this performance. “ranney” is a naturally funny actor who can get any laugh with his big expressive eyes but when his pain is on display…it’s horrible to watch. His closing speech is a marvel of quiet agony.
Anthem celebrates male friendship while giving an elegiac note to denied opportunities.
Go over was written in response to Trump winning the presidency in 2016, premiered at Steppenwolf in 2017, Lincoln Center in 2018, and was the first play to open on Broadway after the 18-month pandemic lockdown. Antoinette Nwandu wrote different endings for each production reflecting what she felt the audience needs at that particular time.
The play has received numerous accolades and a film adaptation by Spike Lee. It has been called a combination of Waiting for Godot and the story of the Exodus of the Israelites. Moses (Kayodé Soyemi) and Kitch (Austin B. Sasser) pass the time around the corner, dreaming of what life would be like in the Promised Land. They make lists, talk shit, and challenge and support each other as they watch another day go by. They are interrupted by two white men, Mister and Ossifer, both played by Chester regular James Barry.
Monsieur arrives with a picnic basket on his way to his mother’s house with greetings and offers of copious amounts of food. Ossifer is a patrol cop who comes as an occupying force, harassing, belittling, and threatening them before stealing their apple pie and walking out. The racist threat is perceived in both and with each entry the existential threat is raised.
The room works on several levels at once. Besides the literary allusions, there is a comedy with language and puns between Kitch and Moses which is really fun. The stakes and the anticipation of what will happen are high and the identification and participation in the end is heartbreaking. Besides the striking theatrical artistry at work, it’s hard not to feel involved and called to report on the action on stage.
The decor designed by Nadir Bey presents a large telephone pole in the center of the stage divided between two cracked brick walls which reserve a few surprises exploited by the lighting designer Madeleine Hébert.
Barry does his usual great job, all “Gosh, Golly,” smiling folk good Samaritan as Mister and inhuman thug as Ossifer. He’s still great but I’ve never seen him play such broadly satirical roles and he’s excellent at it. Austin B. Sasser is the more optimistic of the pair and his hopefulness has you wishing the best while Kayode Soyeme seems to know the price required to enter the Promised Land and watching him gets on your nerves for the count. The two have fun playing against each other and fill the house with joy at the start of the play, which makes the journey the play takes us all the deeper.
Director Christina Franklin has done a great job with this pressure cooker from a play, getting it going and knowing when to turn up the heat and when to turn it down. Time flew by and left you changed like a summer storm that swept through the city.
It’s a great, great privilege to be inside the theaters again after three long years and to be able to see two such impactful plays echoing each other’s themes in the Berkshire mountains. It’s hard to say what’s going on in the country on any given day but the theater is changing and it’s good to watch it.
By Lolita Chakrabarti
Shakespeare & Co, until 08/28
Tickets: www.shakespeare.org or 413-637-3353
By Antoinette Nwandu
Chester Theater Company, until 8/7
Tickets: www.chestertheatre.org or 413-354-7771