Young folks can envision the person they might become. But when youth ends, adults also see the person they actually became—and have to live with that double knowledge. That’s just one of a multitude of personal tragedies threaded into WEBEIME, Layon Gray’s poetic drama currently at the Negro Ensemble Company.
In a raised, upstage prison cell, a young man waits on death row, haunted by past deeds and a cancelled future. In the foreground, where his imagination roams free, eight nameless men serve as ghosts of past and present. They enact the incarcerated man’s onetime aspirations as well as his disturbing memories, sometimes simultaneously. Through recollection, this chorus comes to share his identity and afflictions.
As it time-travels, WEBEIME shifts forms: Spoken word yields to lively Motown songs and to choreographed sequences with expressionistic masks and movement. The chorus navigates back and forth through this life story, showing giddy Friday-night dances as well as an all-too-familiar history of sexual abuse and resulting trauma. Despite his formal fluidity and thematic ambition, however, Gray unnecessarily prolongs scenes, often turning them overwrought. An energetic cast tries to compensate for this diffuse structure with emotional wattage—including Thom Scott II, who shines in a comical seduction scene. They work mightily to make adult pain as compelling as youthful exuberance.