Father Figuring

“I ain’t shit,” roars drunken patriarch Willie near the start of Alexander Thomas’s Throw Pitchfork (New York Theatre Workshop). “Don’t be like me. I will kick your ass.”

Swaying yet towering, this father looms huge over his boys. It’s a galvanizing moment onstage. And it encapsulates the theme of Thomas’s autobiographical play—how a father’s history splinters through his four sons’ lives and insinuates itself into their beings.

Thomas, adroitly playing all five parts, transports us from Albany in the early ’60s to contemporary Hollywood. But the dark heart of Throw Pitchfork beats in 1930s racist Alabama. In a series of monologues hopscotching back and forth through time, each man fills in a piece of this African American family’s story. Oldest brother Jimmy, a sly junkie, steals from his family with a smile. Wesley, next in line, takes what he wants from others and struts his “bad motherfucker” jive from jail. Cleve, a gay man and literate striver, turns little Alex onto Shakespeare and acting. Alex will grow up to become an actor—and drink, steal, and land in jail.

Two scenes frame this family drama. In the first, a six-year-old Alex skips and plays while his dad, trying to sleep one off, yells at him to shut a noisy faucet. Dexterously portraying the kid, the drunk, and the irritating drip, Thomas enacts the boy’s triumphal dance of success, then his terror when the drops resume and his raging father hurls a pitchfork at him.

In the second, later in the play, Willie reminisces about his idyllic boyhood cut short. At 14, after being duped by strangers into distracting a shopkeeper during a robbery, young Willie receives a life sentence. “That was Alabama,” he sums up simply. He tells us how he became a “dog boy,” running from the prison hounds day after day to train them to track fugitives. He learns to avoid their maulings, studies how they think and scent. Then in one heart-pounding scene, after 10 years, he escapes. “I’m your friend boy,” he calls, leaping before the pack. “Your dog boy friend.”

Thomas, a skilled and provocative writer, has placed this gripping climax where it casts light on the monologues before and after it. In the rare moments when this compact show threatens to become another story of how-I-became-an-actor, Thomas delivers jolts like these, in scenes that meld language and acting seamlessly. Lenora Pace’s taut direction and dynamic use of music, movement, and color rev up the voltage.

As an actor, Thomas walks the walk, talks the talk of each of his distinctive characters. As a playwright, he explosively projects how he has become them all, yet fought free to become himself. —Francine Russo

Tuskegee Revisited

From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. government took its own crack at Nazi medicine: In a carefully orchestrated study, 399 African American men were denied proper treatment for their syphilis infections. The United States Public Health Service wanted to research syphilis’s long-term effect on blacks. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study proceeded for 40 years, the men left to suffer the consequences of the disease, until a whistle-blower finally alerted the Associated Press.

David Feldshuh’s Miss Evers’ Boys (McGinn/Cazale Theater) is the fictional tale of four of these men, and of the nurse and doctors who led them through a long, fake treatment. Eunice Evers, a black nurse, arrives in Alabama in 1932 to supervise the care of four sharecroppers—Hodman, Willie, Caleb, and Ben—who are infected with syphilis but as yet show no symptoms. At first, the medical care they receive is legitimate, an honest attempt to help them using the mercury treatment of the era. But when funding for the project runs out, the supervising doctors opt to use the men, and hundreds of others like them, as placebo-driven guinea pigs in the PHS’s long-term syphilis study; with utilitarian logic, the doctors convince themselves that the scientific benefits derived from the sacrifice of the men will eventually lead to improved health care for all blacks with syphilis. The study persists even after penicillin proves a cure for the disease. Feldshuh follows his four men from their first meeting with Miss Evers to their varying fates four decades later.

The Melting Pot Theatre Company’s production of Miss Evers’ Boys can best be described as a sturdy-enough staging of an OK-enough docudrama. Feldshuh and director Kent Gash get a lot of mileage out of the simple historical facts, which are a tragedy with or without a play—I’m not sure you get anything more from Miss Evers’ Boys than you would simply reading a history of the Tuskegee study. That said, the production stays two steps ahead of the worthy-but-dull, largely due to the energy and appeal of the four actors playing the “boys”—Daryl Edwards, Byron Easley, Chad L. Coleman, and Helmar Augustus Cooper. The four make a compelling ensemble, whether in their relationship to Miss Evers and the doctors, or in the verve of their “jellying” washboard band and dreams of playing the Cotton Club. Coleman deserves special praise, for making a scene involving a spinal tap one of the most upsetting moments I’ve ever seen onstage.

On the lighter, less-hypodermic side, it’s worth noting that Feldshuh has written a play about syphilis in which one of the characters is named Willie Johnson. —Brian Parks

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