The white attorney rages against the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, decries the moral hypocrisy of capital punishment, and argues an airtight black-rage defense. But no, it’s not the late Bill Kunstler holding forth as the hero of Ron Milner’s Defending the Light: The courtroom drama, based on Earl Conrad’s novel Mr. Seward for the Defense, takes place in 1846.
A young black man, William Freeman, has been arrested for a murderous rampage against whites, and his case becomes a high-profile political battle between state attorney general John Van Buren (son of Martin) and the abolitionist former governor William Henry Seward (later Lincoln’s secretary of state). While Van Buren (played by Ned Coulter) rails like a Willie Horton ad against the scourge of liberal judges letting depraved criminals run loose, Seward (James Kiberd) methodically demonstrates how Freeman’s previous false conviction for a horse theft and the brutal prison experience that followed broke him spiritually, mentally, and physiologically. Freeman (played by Eddie Robinson) was beaten in the head so badly by guards, we’re told no less than six times, that he lost his hearing. Now he wears a perpetually goofy grin, and though he’d been a bright and enterprising young man, witness after witness testifies, “He wasn’t himself no more when he got out of prison.”
The material is compelling, to be sure. Trouble is, once you get that Milner is driving home the message that the criminal justice systemhasn’t changed much for African Americans in the last 150 years—and you get that within the first two minutes—there’s not much to do but wring your hands, cluck your tongue, and root for the hero. In other words, the audience is stuck in the same disempowered but morally righteous role as Seward’s wife, who looks up from her embroidery to assure her husband, “I’ve never been more proud of you. You’re an honored knight and I wear your colors.”
Freeman’s grandfather appears from time to time, wearing a robe and carrying a staff, but it’s the play’s central metaphor (note the title) that he beats us with. Midway through the play he announces that his grandson was “the one with the light,” because he could see not only what was, but what could be. And at the end—after a guilty verdict—he dutifully delivers the moral: “You can kill a whole people if you get rid of the ones with the light.”
A nimble production company might do much to overcome the redundancy and heavy-handedness of Milner’s writing, but oddly, the seasoned director Jay Broad and his cast exa-cerbate the flaws, delivering every line as a holy pronouncement. The play comes off as one of those self-important after-school TV specials for Black History Month: far simpler and far duller than it has any reason to be.
One might expect that same hagiographic flatness in a one-man bio play about the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. But as mysteriously and profoundly as the High Priest of Bebop transformed American music, in Monk playwright Laurence Holder and especially performer Rome Neal draw you gently and irresistibly into their own love of the man and his music.
Monk was famously diffident, so he isn’t the most likely character to build an almost two-hour monologue around. Holder and Neal portray that reticence as a sort of public mask that enabled him to carry on in an often unappreciative, and sometimes downright hostile, world. “They think we were soft in the head,” their Monk says of club owners, music critics, and other folks who ran the business. “We were revolutionaries, baby, and we knew it.”
Thus, though in interviews Monk demurred when asked to weigh in on, say, the civil rights movement, Holder and Neal establish an intimacy between audience and subject that suggests we’re hearing the man’s deliberately withheld private thoughts on political events. Whether the script’s fly-by comments on, for instance, the murder of Fred Hampton or the government’s complicity with the drug trade come straight from Monk, the public record does not show. Certainly they’re plausible enough. But dramatically, they help sketch the context in which the biographical details play out: Colleagues like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis reap fame and fortune while Monk waits; he is arrested in 1951 on a phony drug rap and, after a two-month jail stint, languishes without work because his cabaret card has been revoked; he suffers debilitating headaches and depressions; he hits the bottle and sometimes the dope; he holds fast, always, to his music and to his wife, Nellie.
Holder doesn’t quite try to imitate Monk’s music in his dramatic structure—nobody possibly could. Yet the play offers some well-placed syncopations, sometimes temporarily jumbling the chronology of Monk’s story, and it introduces motifs that get reshaped with new meaning as they recur. Neal is a relaxed and commanding performer, dancing with grace and vigor as he re-creates Monk’s sways and twirls on the bandstand. Almost 50 years ago, Nat Hentoff wrote that Monk “has an intense sense of drama (not melodrama) that can create a reflectively dissonant, almost hypnotic mood.” That’s what Holder and Neal have captured.