“The Dinner” is a most satisfying meal.

Review by Ramona Pula
Photo supplied by company

“The Dinner” opening night 7-15-15, Davenport Theatre Black Box (MITF 16)
Writer, Director: Darryl Reuben Hall
Casting: Gayle Samuels
Musical Director: Ken Crutchfield
Production Manager: Roumel Reaux
Stage Manager: Joyce Pena
Lighting & Sound: Harlan Penn
Choreographer: Christopher Liddell
Costume Coordinator: Jennifer Montague

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“The Dinner” by Darryl Reuben Hall, currently running at the Davenport Theatre as part of the 16th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival, is a must-see show that walks a tightrope between harsh reality and comforting hope as it concerns racism in the United States of America.

Gayle Samuels has done a terrific job as casting director, which is an art in itself. The creative team includes production manager Roumel Reaux, stage manager Joyce Pena, and choreographer Christopher Liddell. The lighting and sound by Harlan Penn is top-notch. Music direction by Ken Crutchfield is also excellent. The costumes as coordinated by Jennifer Montague are wonderful and period-specific. The scenery by necessity is minimal, given the limited time for load-in and load-out and little on site storage in the venue. The changing of scenery, done by the ensemble, is sometimes clunky as a result. A change that works well is when Booker T. Washington, as he remembers his mother feeding her children chicken in the middle of the night, sets a table which is used in some later scenes.

Presented as a series of vignettes, the play deals specifically with the relationship between Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt, and the furor expressed by white southerners, some blacks, politicians, and the press after Roosevelt hosted Washington as his dinner guest at the White House in October 1901.

The show opens with a black man in blackface reading a newspaper. He breaks into a minstrel song and dance routine that drops the “n” word, a lot. An audience member walked out of the show after this number, and it could only have been because he was uncomfortable facing historical reality, since the routine was well-performed.

The man playing the minstrel then introduces himself as Booker T. Washington, as he begins to wipe black makeup off his face with a handkerchief. Washington is played expertly throughout by the author of this piece, Darryl Reuben Hall. The cast in general is solid and professional.

Nicholas Tucci primarily plays Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina, and Darrel Blackburn primarily plays Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, although both actors play other roles as well. At times it was easy to tell who they were playing, via accent change and slight costume variations, however at other times it was not completely clear to me.

Senator Tillman and Senator Vardaman, vocal and prominent white supremacist politicians of the time, quote from newspapers responding to Roosevelt’s and Washington’s dinner, and they also speak for themselves, ending with a dance and spoken word duet.

The vitriol and racial hatred that the pair spew can seem shocking, especially to a modern New Yorker. In fact, more than halfway through the piece, two more audience members walked out after a section featuring these two.

These things are hard for us to hear. That said, it’s important for us to know our history. It helps us understand our current societal situation, shows us how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go. The fact that some currently in power would like to “whitewash” the history of U.S. slavery and the Jim Crow-era South (hello, Texas State Board of Education!) highlights the need for us to remember. It is only in fully knowing our past that we as an entire American population can understand the current epidemic of racism that still exists here.

Tucci, as Tillman, is believable. That said, he wouldn’t always look at the audience while he was talking, and much of the time looked down, which took away from the character and what he was saying. Blackburn, as Vardaman, did look at the audience, and he was scarier because of this direct, matter-of-fact engagement.

Robert Sivers plays Whitefield McKinlay and Bryant Wingfield plays Emmett J. Scott, Booker T. Washington’s chief aide of many years. Both actors also play other characters, although as with the ensemble members previously mentioned, it was hard sometimes to tell exactly who they were.

There is also some non-chronological time-jumping between vignettes, although only within a few years, back or forth, which caused no confusion. Wingfield is excellent. Sivers’ performance is a bit rougher, however he also does well overall.

Mark Montague is perfectly cast as Theodore Roosevelt. There were a (very) few times when the actor paused a little too long while giving a speech, which made me wonder if he needs to drill his lines more, and caused him to disconnect briefly from what the character was saying. Like Washington and others, he’s trying to convince the audience as if they are an audience of over a century ago. Connection and fully being in the moment is especially important here. That said, for the most part Montague’s performance is terrific.

In a segment alternating between Washington speaking at the Atlanta Georgia Exposition in 1895, as a guest of Governor Rufus Brown Bullock, and Roosevelt speaking in a different location (and possibly at different times), we hear much of each man’s racial philosophy. Although these men were progressive for their time, they were also somewhat conservative by modern standards. It’s interesting to hear them in the context of history. I believed both actors as orators, especially Darryl Reuben Hall, whose voice becomes especially sonorous when the speaker is impassioned.

The use of lighting and actors freezing in place was used well here to differentiate the speakers as they spoke alternately, however whenever Washington spoke, the light bled a little too much on Roosevelt. That might be a limitation of the festival lighting plot that the designer had to deal with. Darryl Reuben Hall’s pacing through his speeches were on point, whereas Mark Montague faltered slightly in places.

These vignettes were engaging, however they went back and forth between the characters too many times. There were six sections for Washington and five for Roosevelt. Mr. Hall may want to consider condensing this section or consolidating the speeches into fewer vignettes.

We could have used more reaction to Washington’s speech from the Georgia Exposition audience. Robert Sivers reacted enthusiastically and more than the others. The speech builds, however the crowd’s reactions do not. When Washington finishes they suddenly erupt with applause (helped by sound design), and the increase in their enthusiasm seems too sudden without having had at least some crescendo.

The show ends in a satisfying and hopeful way, with Washington and Roosevelt sitting down to the dinner table and raising their glasses to each other, smiling. At curtain call, the ensemble performs an uplifting song written by Ken Crutchfield. Booker T. Washington and Teddy Roosevelt can sing! All the cast members have excellent singing voices. I liked the back line harmonies and they could have come in even earlier. More movement and choreography would also be nice.

Some in the ensemble looked more engaged with the song than others, and at first blush I thought the song might turn out corny. However, I quickly got enthused and I stood up with the rest of the audience as I clapped and danced. It was a feel-good, healing moment for many in the theater.

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