Theater archives

Fulsome Prison Blues


Actors are continually blabbing about how to achieve “truth on the stage.” We have Stanislavsky to thank for this vaguely oxymoronic concept, one that’s frequently confused even the best American thespians into working themselves into a frenzy of sense-memory exercises. It brings to mind the famous (and maybe apocryphal) story of Sir Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man, instructing Dustin Hoffman, who’d stayed up all night to play an exhausted guy, to “try acting.” Too often an actor’s desire to bring every scrap of “reality” to a role winds up in an overheated, self-conscious performance, because he cannot recognize and use himself as an instrument. It happens so frequently that when a show like writer-performer Edwin Lee Gibson’s Five ‘Til comes along, so full of actual truth, you might not know what hit you.

Gibson has cast himself as a rambunctious death row inmate during the five minutes before his midnight execution. No disrespect to the man, but Gibson has made excellent use of his appearance—he really looks like a brother who’d wind up on the wrong side of some iron bars. He sports a shock of unruly hair, his eyes are wide and slightly glazed, and his missing tooth appears at first to be the result of one of those Method acting disasters. As Dante Wallace, dressed in an industrial jumpsuit, he bops around a cell defined by a rectangle of light, singing an inane blues tune. It’s the theme song of many a criminal—”I Ain’t Done Nuthin’.” The terrible singing goes on just long enough to make you wonder if the man, not the character, is unstable. There’s no set designer listed; Gibson has merely painted Dixon Place’s concrete wall an industrial yellow and the floor blood red. Here the simplicity supports the stark subject matter. This is the room, and you are there.

But Wallace isn’t an easy character to be confined with. He’s obnoxious, scrappy, short-tempered—he sneers that his black Jewish warden isn’t a “real Jew,” since they’re all from Jerusalem. “The Jews over there Is-real!” he says, backtracking on his scorn with a pun. His defensive, somewhat self-pitying tone keeps him wonderfully unreliable as a narrator. He’s got a martyr complex as big as Tupac’s. “Always me, never them,” he chants, another of his blues mantras of blame.

By definition, a man on death row has an urgent story to tell. With only “five minutes” (theatrically stretched to about 50) to tell it, you wonder if Gibson can pull it off without resorting to an indulgent monologue. Happily, the playwright avoids disaster by folding Wallace’s narrative inside the play, as Gibson and the other cast members act out a second story—yet this play within the play casts even further doubt on the protagonist’s reliability. Wallace’s cell mate is a mouse he’s named Pepe, for whom he claims to have written a short story called “I Didn’t Steal the Cheese That Time,” a thinly veiled version of his own hard-luck tale. Pepe the Mouse, accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s daughter, claims that when he visited the child on the sly he neglected to drop her off in front of her school. Away from his watchful eye, some other person murdered her. Is Wallace a victim of the system, a liar in denial, or a little of both? Gibson keeps his alter ego at exactly the right pitch, neither veering too far into sentiment or overemphasizing Wallace’s dark side, leaving only the beautifully sad, human parts. This fantastic performance comes to him with extraordinary honesty.

Much labor has gone into Three Willies—not a sequel to Puppetry of the Penis, but a multimedia jazz opera on the theme of racial profiling. But it’s an effort to not much avail. The piece is set during the 1988 presidential campaign, when a Republican lobbying organization used convicted killer Willie Horton’s image as part of an ad criticizing Michael Dukakis’s criminal-rehab program. The dissonance between the black urban family depicted in the piece and their operatic singing style can be overcome—after all, many of us were able to accept that squatters on the Lower East Side wouldn’t be embarrassed singing the songs in Rent. The set, a concert stage that might be more at home at the Meadowlands, is tougher to reconcile. Additionally difficult to swallow is the perfunctory script, which tells far more than it shows about three generations of black men and the various lies with which they’ve decided to live. Director Talvin Wilks moves them about awkwardly, which doesn’t help either. Least believable is the idea that the Willie Horton ad might be a catalyst for any of the play’s forced melodrama. The men worry that they’ll be literally mistaken for Horton, which is silly, and that all black men will be treated as bogeymen, which wasn’t a new idea in 1988. Their relationships come to a head simultaneously with the scandal, but any real connection to it is vague. The theme rings, but it doesn’t ring true.