Review by Robert I. Gottlieb
My viewing of Kenthedo Robinson’s The Divine Assignment was sandwiched between my binging of the second and third episodes of HBO’s Big Little Lies. The show – aside from being a multi-million dollar, several-movie-star-headlined, extravaganza – was captivating insofar as it does not give away who was killed until very late in the game. It’s a thriller insofar as we don’t know what the crime will be until the very end, but it’s a mystery because we know there was a crime from the jump. This got me thinking, very much, about the nature of mysteries, and thrillers, and what makes a good crime story in general.
So, okay, I did not like Mr. Robinson’s play. By-and large this is because it needed more practice. Several lines were tripped over throughout the course of the evening and the character dynamics – the changing emotional states of the Allman family and their friends – were awkward. For example, the scene where Bey Allman learns that her son has been killed includes Mrs. Allman, mid-hysteria, remembering to remind her guests to lock the door on their way out. Additionally, Mrs. Allman’s relationship with the detective in charge of her son’s case, the pigmentally named Detective White, moves from extremes without cause. Why is she willing to do anything for the Detective’s help one moment and then unwilling to answer any of his helpful questions the next? This might be interpreted as the machinations of grief but I just felt confused by who the characters were. I was lost midway through the plot.
That’s not to say that the core is rotten. Mr. Robinson’s play should be celebrated insofar as it pays loving tribute to the mystery genre. The final, Scooby-doo-esque reveal brought a smile to my face for just that reason – it’s a simple moment in a simple play. The acting also has its highlights. Laurie Avant’s grace and presence saves the character of Bey Allman from becoming entirely flat. Segrick Furbert plays the innocent Stephon Thompson with the perfect amount of delicacy. With some refinement, the play could be wonderful.
This brings me back to Big Little Lies. The character work in that show is so good it serves as an exemplar to the mystery/thriller genre. By neglecting to reveal the nature of the crime until the last episode, the audience is forced to look at the people involved in it more closely. We invest in the characters before we know exactly what happened to them. That way we feel their loss. Divine Assignment lacks that foundation, and so I found myself indifferent to the plight of the Allman’s. If no one care’s who’s done it is it still a mystery?