A review by Evan Meeña
New York is filled with theater festivals. Every room that can hold some lights and a dozen folding chairs has festivals. Themed, audience-votes, etc… You have your perennials like The Fringe and The Midtown International, but there are some dedicated small festivals worth taking another look at as well. One is Manhattan Repertory right off of Times Square. Here you get short plays (all under 30 minutes) on topical topics and ideas deserving of elaboration. Among the Amuse-bouches of Manhattan Rep’s Summer Fest was Joanne de Simone’s Earthmen. This truly stirring, truly important play deserves much more than its 15 minutes (literally).
The play tells of a chance meeting between a runaway slave (Phillip Paschal) and an enigmatic Native American (Mohammed Saad Ali) during the last days of slavery in America. In a matter of a quarter hour, these two men – each wounded by the prevailing society of the time – shares their views on religion, politics, life and love, and retribution. We are treated to a treatise of what America was and why it is what it is now. It’s surprise ending only made the entire experience that much more enjoyable.
As a playwright, Joanne de Simone should be lauded. The crisp dialogue never got preachy thanks to quick quibs and clever segues; the action flowed well (thanks to director Jay Michaels excellent sense of pacing) to make the play an experience to be savored; and the rich characterizations made we – the audience – wanting more. This quick moment of great depth served to leave you wanting more of Joanne de Simone’s canon of works as well.
Representing her works were a misleading bunch – listed as making debuts of some kind with this production, the three actors on the stage each bore the power and delivery of professionals having spent much time gracing the boards. As Achak, the Native-American, Mohammed Saad Ali’s powerful voice and perfectly timed delivery gave us a sense of majesty that this character must have to make the matter convincing. Ali’s clever turn of phrase and Beckett-like pausing had us hanging on each word. Phillip Paschal’s gargantuan presence and booming voice – both as an actor and singer in brief moments – was the perfect foil to the slight, metered Ali. Paschal gave us a lion-hearted man with a soul firmly placed in God’s bosom. It is his delivery of the twist at the end that sent chills through the crowd in this intimate setting. The third voice was literally that, gospel singer Debra Williams was as near perfection as one can find as – what appears to be – the story-teller. The tale came out of her eyes and her voice so as to seem like a religious parable with an existentially happy ending. The simple look of the play (functioning campfire by Andrew Liebowitz and clever traces of history in the costumes by Christine Conway) served as the background of a fine painting.
Manhattan Rep should be commended for picking this pearl of a piece. They were not alone. It turns out this play will be lensed as an independent film later this season. Like the play’s uplifting but realistic ending, it seems that good works can succeed in the end.
Evan Meeña is a former member of EMT: Emerging Musical Theater Company in San Diego, and writes for Liberal Librettos, a magazine exploring new views on classic musical theater. He writes for OuterStage.com and TheatreArts.net