Monday, September 10, 2007

The Play "Redshirts" Needs Work
But Is Well Worth Seeing

Mr. B. is obviously not the person to do a proper review of the play "Redshirts" put on by the Penumbra under the direction of Lou Bellamy. This is the first performance of the play and it is produced in cooperation with Roundhouse theater of Maryland. Briefly, the play deals with academic cheating and the big-time athletics/academics interface. People at BigU should be very familiar with this topic given its recent recapitulation by Sports Illustrated.

Full Disclosure:

Mr. B. has had some long time involvement in matters related to this play. He taught at a very good liberal arts college during the seventies. It had the highest minority enrollment in the state at that time. His students struggled mightily, and some of them succeeded. He was unfortunate enough to observe a cheating incident involving a minority student who happened to be a prominent student politician. Lately he has served as the chair of the student scholastic standing committee in a BigU program that has the highest minority enrollment in the University. The good news is that we have the opportunity to give out a lot of scholarships; the bad news is that we have to deal with academic probation, dismissal, and, yes, cheating. Since we have a high proportion of minority students in our program, some of these cases involve minority students. Mr. B. is also a great admirer of Lou Bellamy as an artist and teacher.

Saturday night Mr. and Mrs. Bonzo stepped out to see the play. It opened on Thursday evening and reviews were available from both the Star-Tribune (Strib) and from the Pioneer-Planet. They were not very enthusiastic and I had read them quickly but not attentively. Reviewing in GemCities can be a bit uneven and I often find myself in sharp disagreement with reviews, although in this case there was much I agree with.

Therefore, I am going to quote sections of both of them accompanied by some additional remarks.

From the Star-Tribune:

By Rohan Preston, Star Tribune

Last update: September 07, 2007 – 10:45 PM

There is a pivotal scene in "Redshirts," Dana Yeaton's ripped-from-the-headlines drama about a cheating scandal in a university athletic program. Cocksure running back Dante Green (James T. Alfred) confronts the accusing professor, played with regal steeliness by Regina Williams.

"You've got issues," he says forcefully to her. She agrees, but not precisely in the way he's implying. In the play's best moment, she lists the price that African-Americans have paid -- including braving snarling dogs and water hoses -- so that someone like Dante could have such a college opportunity.

Both the stern professor and the cavalier star athlete are moved by the encounter, each breaking their façades. Unfortunately, that poignant moment is exceptional in Yeaton's earnest, misshapen and sometimes facile work.

"Redshirts," directed by Lou Bellamy, has its own dramaturgical issues; it doesn't really seem to believe in itself as anything but a topical after-school special. Despite the iconic, slow-motion entry of the suited-up actors -- an opening scene that suggests something almost epic -- the play begins and ends with a strange listlessness, unsure of what it is or wants to say.

The symmetry of the play with the epic beginning needs to be matched in the end. It isn't. Drop the gladiator stuff.

Still, amid this crisis of confidence, it has a strong, solid middle.

If "Redshirts" is worth seeing, it's for both the veteran and new talent onstage at Penumbra. Williams delivers a finely drawn professor, both stern and sympathetic. James Craven's coach is nuanced and likable. As a student-athlete who has had a concussion, Ahanti Young is an almost lobotomized figure on the blink. Alfred, who is making his Penumbra debut, invests Dante with a curled, almost sneering lip and a lot of unruly testosterone.

This guy is really good. Although I did not like the ADD counselor bit, there was a scene during which the guy was absolutely supercharged, with one of his legs visibly twitching with pent-up energy.

But the script needs work.

Absolutely. With some work the play could be much better. Leave out the stuff that is irrelevant and sharpen it. Kill the ADD business. Develop the love interest or drop it. Develop the concussion business or drop it. There is just too much on the table to focus. You can't slay all the dragons at one sitting.

In one particular playwriting convention, the action freezes and Dante steps out of the tableaux to act the role of Greek chorus, delivering rhymed asides -- raps, really -- to the audience. An interesting technique, but it does not further the narrative.

I liked this. My only complaint was that Dante's rap was sometimes hard to understand. Needs more work on ENUNCIATION.

What "Redshirts" does show is a world of people with hardened perceptions, including a tutor who believes, deep down, that the football players are glorified animals. The play shows the players being caught between many forces as they get chewed up.

The tutor is badly done and too one-dimensional. She is apparently intelligent and good at her job. But no one with experience would help these students in the way she did, practically inviting the professor to go after them for similarities in the papers that she helped them write. This didn't seem credible to me. And she certainly didn't seem to think that all of them were animals at least not for the whole play. She may have come to that conclusion after a brawl near the end when a fight between the players resulted in another concussion for the unfortunate Clarence.

Ironically, that may mean an opportunity to truly learn something that they have a hard time getting into, like, say, the poetry of Robert Frost and Claude McKay.

There are a couple of really great poetry sessions. An English professor might not think so... But you can imagine how football players might react to the word nosegays or the Frost poem about stopping in the woods on a snowy evening.

The second review, from the Pioneer-Planet, is a quite good commentary on the play. Mr. B. will not mar it by making additional inane comments.

From the Pioneer-Planet:


Theater Critic Press

The subject matter has the potential to be the stuff of gripping drama, especially here in the Twin Cities, where memories of similar scandals at the University of Minnesota remain relatively fresh.

But Yeaton, in his laudable effort to write a thoughtful play instead of a sensational one, has created a work with no tension, no conflict and, consequently, no traction.

Everyone at Yeaton's fictional Tennessee Southern University has an understandable, defensible position. The football players, in the words of cocky redshirt freshman Dante Green (James T. Alfred, playing the role with a coiled-spring intensity), are just "trying really hard to do something really hard" in balancing scholastic work and the pressures of Division I football.

On the other side is the first-year poetry professor (a rigidly proper but passionate Regina Marie Williams) who notes the obvious similarities among the players' papers. A black woman, she decries the fact that the previous generation of African-Americans fought and died for the right to use the library at southern universities, and that these guys probably have probably never been there.

The assistant coach who tries to mediate the dispute (James Craven, reliably biting off and spitting out his lines like a plug of tobacco) was himself a beneficiary and a victim of the old-school college sports system that robbed student athletes of an education. He doesn't want his guys to get special treatment, but he doesn't want to lose his entire backfield, either.

The closest thing the play comes to an antagonist is the unseen head football coach of the Swarming Hornets, who pulls down a $2 million-a-year salary and opts for obfuscation in the face of the scandal.

But that scene comes almost at the end, and, for the rest of the time, Yeaton's script drifts among abortive romantic encounters, half-considered questions of race and class and shorthand character sketches - the secretly-smart jock; the wisdom-issuing, dumb-but-lovable guy who might have fallen out of the pages of "Of Mice and Men"; and the token white kid who gave up small-school scholarships to play big-time college football.

And after straining so hard to write a complex and nuanced play, Yeaton allows his script, in the end, to turn on the most obvious and least interesting question: Did they or didn't they cheat?

Yeaton has a flair for language, a decent ear for dialogue and his finger on some knotty issues. What his script lacks is a propulsive device, a reason for the play to exist and to move forward.

Without that, about the best that director Lou Bellamy can conjure on the stage is a series [of] almost-questions, sort-of perspectives and a promising premise left unfulfilled.

Bonzo Summary

Staging: A+

Lighting: A+

Acting: A-

The Play: B-

The set is very clever. About twenty yards of football field. The goalpost area has back projection of games, and other scenery. The weight room - to the left - and the players apartment front - to the right - work seamlessly. As do the roll in offices of the English professor, the ADD evaluator, and the tutor.

OurLeader, Joltin' Joel, ET, Tubby, the new football coach, and the faculty reps should all go to this play. Together. Then they should go over to Mr. B.'s beer-drinking establishment of choice for thirty-eight years, the Big Ten, and have a nice long talk about what they are going to do here at BigU to address the issues raised.

In the hope that what doesn't kill us makes us strong. Bonzo