Say what you will about Joseph Edward, but he’s never dull onstage. A bearlike slab of black brotherhood, he has a physical presence and style infused with deep reserves of hip-hop energy. Words fly out of his mouth faster than he can say them. Arms raised and fingers splayed, he’ll skip from one end of the set to the other in three bounds. His face can display a Kabuki theater of emotional responses in a very limited amount of time. You sense in him a compulsion almost manic, a desire to connect with an audience on an individual level. He has the raw drive that propels solo performers like John Leguizamo, the kind of frenzy that belongs onstage all by itself. Edward knows he only has 90 minutes of your attention, and he’ll be damned if you’re going to look away for one second of it. How can you channel his verve into a theatrical presentation that will leave audiences saying more than just, “Dag, Money needs to chill”? The answer for Edward, under the mentorship of American Place director Wynn Handman, is to tailor the classic African American autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land into a contemporary one-man show.
Claude Brown—who wrote Manchild, his memoir of growing up in 1950s Harlem—experienced a quintessential inner-city survivor narrative. Published in 1965, the book quickly achieved for its generation what Richard Wright’s Black Boy had for the previous one, and sold over 2 million copies to become Macmillan’s second most popular title ever, after Gone With the Wind. A thief by the time he was nine, Brown was shot during a robbery at age 13. He spent his adolescence at upstate New York reform schools Wiltwyck and Warwick, where through his teachers he gained an appreciation for reading. The street was all he knew, however, so when he returned to Harlem in his late teens, he dealt cocaine and marijuana until a junkie named Limpy robbed him. The law of the street would have forced Brown to murder Limpy in order to preserve the integrity of his business. Providence, however, got him off the hook when Limpy was killed by other means. Taking Limpy’s death as a sign, Brown closed up his drug operation, moved to Greenwich Village, and started school. Eventually, Brown wound up at Howard University, where he studied with Toni Morrison and wrote short pieces for Dissent under the editorship of Norman Mailer. After the book blew up, he made a living writing and lecturing.
Since Brown’s dramatic story of escape from the streets is perfectly situated mid 20th century, it both echoes slave narratives and prefigures ghetto fabulousness. Edward and Handman’s adaptation, developed as part of the theater’s “Literature to Life” education program, deliberately compresses the differences between then and now by slipping Brown’s words into a solo-performance format that belongs completely to the moment. To exhilarating effect, Edward leaps inside the book as if it were an Avirex jacket and the words were his own autobiography, aggressively swerving through all of its characters—notably Limpy, Brown’s mother, and Minnie, the prostitute who gave Brown’s younger brother Pimp his name. The anachronistic treatment demands that you compare jazz-era hooliganism to today’s thugz. You get the impression that, fundamentally, little has changed in the ghetto—aside from slang words, musical heroes, and the strength of the drugs.
Meanwhile, in the downtown ghetto, Classic Stage Company’s strategy of drawing audiences to classic drama by hiring movie stars—which can work splendidly—has had its first resounding thud with Naked, Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pirandello’s 1922 drama. Don’t blame Pirandello, dead 64 years now, for writing the B-side to his masterwork, Six Characters in Search of an Author. Naked is labyrinthine, but a team with so many accolades to its credit—Oscars, Obies, Golden Globes, RSC memberships—has no business getting lost in it.
The play’s intricate narrative centers on Ersilia Drei, a woman who arrives at a novelist’s lodgings following a highly publicized suicide attempt and the death of a child in her care. A complicated series of lies, affairs, and gossip unravels around her as the story is subjectively recounted in detail. Call it Six Authors in Search of a Character. To pump life into a meta-story like this, you’d need to drench it with urgency, like a courtroom drama or one of the media circuses that inspired Wright’s adaptation (the Louise Woodward nanny scandal and the death of Princess Di). But this ensemble couldn’t give a less committed performance via speakerphone. They could use a transfusion of Joseph Edward’s adrenaline. Mira Sorvino captures Drei’s self-pity at the expense of all vocal and physical stagecraft. And the performance of Daniel Benzali, as the aptly named novelist Nota, suggests that he’s got someplace else to be. The audience certainly does.