There’s little fire this time in Blue Heron’s A Prophet Among Them, a James Baldwin bio-play with occasional music. The playwright, actors, percussionist, and lighting board operator work themselves into a frenzy of enthusiasm and earnestness, but few sparks ignite.
The piece opens promisingly enough as a deceased Baldwin (Reggie Montgomery) arrives to supervise his own memorial service. Baldwin announces a sermon based on a passage from Revelations—”Write the things which thou hast seen and the things that are and the things that shall be thereafter”—and commences reenacting substantive events from his life. In these opening minutes, it seems that playwright Wesley Brown may accomplish the remarkable task of knitting black popular culture forms (gospel, blues, revival meetings, chitlin circuit ribaldry) and a high modernist structure.
But as the play progresses, these threads unravel. The action becomes a tangle of book-report exposition, heavy-handed moralizing, and celebrity cameo (why look, it’s Henry James and William Faulkner! Come meet Malcolm X and Harriet Beecher Stowe). Meanwhile, the actors attempt to substitute overplaying for narrative coherence, no doubt with director Marie Thomas’s encouragement. Montgomery is the worst offender, incarnating Baldwin in a positively Tourettian welter of grimaces, tics, and stutters.
Throughout the play, characters from Baldwin’s fiction confront the author with questions: Why didn’t you let me live? Why didn’t you let me love? Perhaps they should spare a few choice queries for the playwright and director.