Saturday, March 13, 2021

In "No. 6," IRT presents a family drama in which an outsider brings social unrest home

The continuing drama of American racial tension, brought to a head several times in recent years  through fatal encounters between police officers and black people, comes to the stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre. The old movie-poster hype of "ripped from today's headlines!" has never been more apt.

Felicia listens intently to the assertive matriarch Ella.

The audience the new show deserves will miss the highly charged communal effect of a play cryptically titled "No. 6" because of the need to watch it at home (live-streamed through April 4). The performance wrings the heart authentically and with difficulty underlines Americans' need to understand one another across our continuing racial divides. 

We stand on common ground already, but it seems to be crumbling under our feet in different ways. This riveting drama propounds the lesson for blacks and whites to learn empathy as the key to social justice and peace.

The most explosive triggering event, the death of George Floyd under a cop's knee last May, was uppermost in my mind on the day I saw the live-streamed "No. 6": a huge payment by the City of Minneapolis to the victim's family at the same time as the trial of his killer is about to get under way.

The drama boldly pits a close-knit family's desire to survive, specifically to maintain a family business,  against civil unrest situated on historical fact: the police killing in Cincinnati of an unarmed teenager in April 2001. With such a foundation, T.J. Young lards his 90-minute play with well-timed surprises and redirections. It's under the shrewd direction of Dwandra Nickole Lampkin, with astute camera work by WFYI. The apartment setting (designed by Rob Koharchik) conveys hard-earned middle-class status and, with a wealth of family photos on the walls, the importance of kinship.

Matriarch Ella (Milicent Wright) has concluded that public protests, especially when community anger leads to rioting, need to be put aside. Private life must be prioritized, because she's had to move beyond enough personal hardship to make a modicum of success possible. She runs a downtown corner dry-cleaning establishment with her two children, young adult twins Felix and Felicia. In the first scene, Ella is fiercely cranky and overprotective; the qualities give the role a comic tinge at first. IRT veteran Wright is a past master of inflecting serious roles with just the right amount of twinkle and sass.

The daughter (LaKesha Lorene) is focused on paleontology, and her museum work has been sufficiently devoted and original to earn the respect of senior colleagues. She's eagerly awaiting news of a scholarship to take her studies to the next level. Lorene at first seemed to be delivering her lines in a calculated, over-explicit fashion, but once we learn that Felicia is on the autism spectrum, the way she puts across the character made sense. And she handles scenes showing the young woman's trance-like breakdowns under stress in an eerie and moving manner.

The son's practical streak is undercut by resentment of the control he is under and the absence of his father. Jamaal McCray has the character's fundamental decency in hand. At first, he sometimes lacks an essential, mysterious ferocity. The shock of his dragging up the stairs an unconscious white man and dumping him on the living-room couch needs to be reinforced by more street-toughness and deal-with-it bravado. 

Unwilling guest Kelly and his captor Felix look for damage.

Later, in a tense scene with the man, now effectively hiding from the outside turmoil, McCray rises to the spirit of the antagonists' fierce, honest dialogue as they investigate damage to the business downstairs during a lull in the riots. Lighting the scene primarily with the flashlights they hold vividly symbolizes the truth each man is struggling to illumine and face up to.

Emerging foggily from impairment into anger before revealing his woundedness and glimpsing enlightenment, Michael Stewart Allen portrays Kelly, the family's unwelcome guest. He's an off-duty cop who had gotten drunk at a neighborhood bar before tangling with Felix. In fits and starts, we find out why he's in this place and this condition. It becomes clear he stands for the burden that all white people, especially those in law enforcement, must carry. "Your idea of us is different," Ella says accusingly near the end, when the play becomes a little too overloaded with mutual lecturing, Still, the point is driven home well when she adds: "You don't get to hide no more."

The scene reminded me of the parallels and contrasts with America's racial dilemma in the mid-20th century. I've been reading Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel "Invisible Man." The import of the title then was that the authenticity of the black experience could not be seen by white Americans, who dealt with a blurry simulacrum, often verging on caricature, that made up their image of African-Americans. 

Ellison's narrator says poignantly, after describing an incident in which he beat up a white man after an accidental street encounter: "Most of the time...I am not so overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers."

Today, the 24/7 news cycle and viral social media allow none of us to be sleepwalkers. Young's play shows how both sides are in the spotlight, even though it will take them a while, and much hard work,
to really know the other. Ellison's novel depicts an array of threats to the narrator's true identity, some of which surely pertain today and saturate the whole spectrum of African-American life.

But we all may be lucky that invisibility can no longer be sustained either for self-protection or to avoid necessary knowledge of people who are not like us.  Earlier, just after Ella learns some crucial facts about Kelly, she says sharply to him:  "I ain't saying you ain't hurting — I'm saying you are late to the party."

"No. 6," the meaning of whose title must remain hidden until you see the play, reminds us that this open-invitation party is likely to change all of us, as it should.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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