January 20, 2017
Big peachy-beige-y room in the downtown Marriott, Greensboro. I can’t say I arrived without incident, for I was so tired I fought off sleep second by second driving, until finally I stopped at a rest area and slept deep, hard, violently (I don’t know for how long), and was able to continue after that. I’m smack downtown, but the stroll from the hotel to the theater was one in which I was imperially alone. This is not Asheville. The streets are not thronged. My blood is so thin the least incline winded me. But, I got there. The Arts Center, however, is better than anything we have, big, full, vibrant. The play. . . The first minute of it I thought, with resigned heaviness of heart, that it was miscast. The production can recover from almost anything but that. But as the evening went on my perception changed. I heard lines intended for other people coming out of these mouths, and at last it seemed dear and complicated and valiant. I felt like God, who had one thing in mind, and watched the multitudes of the world turn that to multiplicities of other things he had not thought of. These brave kids were saying difficult lines, doing their best, living up to lives they never anticipated, playing parts written for others, and it seemed to me so gallant, and I was, at last, so grateful. The entire human condition was laid bare. Here are our lines; here is the set; there are the other players– how can we make this work? I have never appreciated actors more, even at those times when they have been perfect. None of the handful there for the opening spoke to me about the play– the dreaded “talk-back” is tonight–so who knows how it struck an audience?
Dreams of remarkable rhetorical richness, I think from my having heard my rhetorically rich (whatever else is going on) play. In one I was a detective pursuing a criminal who was practicing to be able to turn invisible. I was inclined to let him do so, though it would mean I couldn’t catch him, just to see if someone could learn to turn invisible. In another my housekeeper was trying to turn everything white. I caught on to it just as everything–books, shelves, walls, floors-- were a lovely pale manganese blue. I decided to let her go all the way.
Inauguration Day. Too horrible to think about. I will avert my eyes from every incidental TV screen.
Spent the day walking around Greensboro, seeing, at a tortoise pace, just about everything there is to see. The streets are empty at night and sparse by day. It isn’t Asheville. Visited the Civil Rights Museum, which houses the original Woolworth lunch counter that exploded into protest in 1960. It was a holy place. I felt the same emotion I felt at the 9/11 monument in New York. Our guide was charming but perhaps a little over-committed, working himself up into a foam of correct indignation. What amazed me was laborious inventiveness of Jim Crow, the effort people went to in order to make other people feel bad, the sheer commitment of time that goes into full-blown racism. You’d think that alone would snap people out of it.
The local review of Night Music is in. I heave a sigh of relief. I heave two sighs of relief:
It takes a certain aplomb for a playwright to open a play to the sound of crickets, but that’s what the masterful author does in “Night Music”, winner of the 2017 North Carolina New Play Project, sponsored by The Greensboro Playwright’s Forum.
The play is The Drama Center’s offering to the Greensboro Fringe Festival, and is directed by Todd Fisher, also Fringe Festival director.
The play is billed as a coming-of-age story about three better-than-average young people and opens in a forest with two boys on a camping trip with their trusty flashlights. James Downs is the precocious Cleve, obsessed with words and science and headed to a high school for gifted students. He strikes up a conversation with another camper, Jesse, played by UNCG theater student Joshua Johnson. The athletic Jesse is everything Cleve isn’t, minus the brains, and they forge an unlikely friendship that the playwright examines in vignettes that take us up to their freshman year in college.
Somewhat uneventful, perhaps, if it weren’t for the entrance of — yep — a girl. Phil (short for Philomela of Greek myth), played by Greensboro theater teacher Tori Sterns, is every bit Cleve’s equal in intelligence and ability, and he is taken with her. As they attend the academically-gifted high school together, they become sweethearts. Cleve resists efforts on both his friends’ parts to introduce them, driven by fears that he will lose one or both of them.
But the inevitable happens as Cleve and Jesse form a band, “Night Music,” and after one of their performances, Phil and Jesse meet. The play gets a second wind, and the air snaps with overt and ambiguous sexual tension as the friendship among these teens becomes more complicated, convoluted and, one might say, convivial.
There is no doubt a touch of autobiography in this powerful piece about young relationships. It is oh so believable that a boy who feels so isolated because of his arguably privileged circumstances would cling to the only two people he can connect with, despite the potential for real heartbreak. Kudos to James Downs for capturing teenage angst in a subtle yet thoroughly convincing way.
This is a cerebral play written by a cerebral playwright, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-nominee (for his memoir "A Childhood in the Milky Way") and winner of numerous national awards as a poet as well as playwright. A stunning dossier.
But it is also a play that hits home.
There is an exhilaration of sorts knowing that you are watching a new creation, never seen before, written specifically for this venue — the Stephen D. Hyers Studio Theater in the Greensboro Cultural Center — and a Greensboro audience.
Do not miss out on that feeling.
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Lynn Jessup is a Greensboro-based reviewer.
This News & Record arts coverage is supported by contributions to ArtsGreensboro’s Arts & Theatre Media Fund.
Well, it wasn’t written for that venue, but if it wants to be, then so be it. I am relieved by this. I have spent the whole day thinking I was ill, and perhaps I am, but most of the down and sad and cold feeling went away when I read the review. If the casting didn’t bother my audience, then I’ll shut up about it.