It’s a paradox. Friends and colleagues have been carping at me that the dialogue of Kia Corthron’s new play is near incomprehensible, and that Michael John Garcés’s production makes the fault worse with overdoing. I find it, if anything, too tidy and understandable. Obviously the truth lies somewhere between. Meantime, don’t let any reviewer’s comments keep you from this provocative and ambitious, if also frustrating, experience. Corthron’s plays, elliptical in narrative, barbed with passionate social anger, and glutted with a maddening mixture of poetry and statistical data, are among the most excitingly divisive works now happening in our theater.
Every Corthron play is a congeries of contending tactics that can split you off not only from your fellow theatergoers, but from yourself. For much of Light Raise the Roof, I was irritated and even angered by one Corthronism or another, but at the end I found myself moved, impressed, and glad I’d been there. My critical mind is proffering a lengthy list of flaws in the play’s thinking, diction, character creation, and structure; my uncritical heart tells me nonetheless that I’m happy it exists. People who think the unexamined life is the only one worth living may want to shun a writer who provokes such conflicted feelings. But then, they should probably shun theatergoing in general too. Only in the act of learning how divided our selves are do we unite.
This in a sense could be both the motto and the matrix of Light Raise the Roof, a play that is at once sprawling in its narration and single-minded in its narrative. Its subject is the homeless, and Corthron clearly wants to include everything that can be said about them. She hops places, jumps times, stretches probabilities, and shifts realities, all while following one figure, Cole, a homeless man who is also a self-educated builder, improvising homes out of scrap for his unsheltered clients, and dreaming of “homesteading” with his friends in a derelict school building. The loopily winding plot follows his search for the two partners, also homeless, whose gifts he imagines qualify them to share the renovation work with him, an African American woman and a white mental-hospital eject with a Brando fixation. A crackhead cynic and his self-reliant sister function alternately as obstacles and enablers. Like the scrap-built shelters we see Cole erecting at the outset, his plans come to fruition only to be wrecked by a mixture of fate, cops, and property laws; unlike us, those who have nothing have no way out from under this murderous triumvirate.
Corthron virtuously declines to hide the many items on her agenda. She means to show that most of the homeless are not incorrigibles but ordinary folk who have slipped off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder; that they have inner resources, knowledge, and human potential worth saving; that their will to survive must battle on two fronts daily, against the drug-and-crime element among them on one hand and massive social prejudice on the other. She invents, for these purposes, bothersome elements that dilute her drama and weigh down her dialogue, like a demented preacher woman who can spout all the latest statistics on cue, and a carefully articulated diction that, for all its slangy ellipticality, sounds unconvincingly rational in the mouths of people worn down from endless days of street life. Wanting to cover every aspect of the topic, she lingers over places and events that do nothing but add another detail to the picture, till even her most dramatic events give off that another-county-heard-from aura.
These missteps debilitate the event, and Garcés’s production, following Corthron’s script faithfully through them, sometimes seems to slow to an infuriating crawl or, at moments, sink into briefly incomprehensible jabber. But stick with the play, and its virtues begin to outweigh its faults. The characters, though unlikely, are never sentimentalized; their many defeats and their will to survive are made equally convincing. If Corthron idealizes their abilities, she does so to raise the question of how much real human ability goes to waste daily on the streets. The neatly arranged spread of destinies and details ultimately presents a true picture, made tangible in Narelle Sissons’s set, a New York of construction scaffolding, rubble, and shadows that merges with Ben Stanton’s inventive lights to provide not only an atmosphere but, in the second act, one particularly stunning visual coup. Garcés’s actors merge effectively with this dark landscape, their voices weaving in and out of Robert Kaplowitz’s grimly accurate mix of urban sounds. The nonverbal and subverbal moments are often the most telling: the crash of plywood shelters being knocked down; the moans of a man freezing to death in a wintry park; the manic gibberish of the harmlessly insane. Robert Beitzel, April Yvette Thompson, and Colleen Werthmann etch particularly strong portraits, and Chris McKinney’s fervent, doggedly pathos-free performance gives Cole a forceful believability—a human problem waiting for a solution, not from the playwright, but from the public.