Monday, June 30, 2014

A Prayer for the Infidel by Kimba Henderson

Jantonio Bague

By Joe Straw

I didn’t look closely at the one-page program. The theatre was dark.  I threw it into my notepad and neglected it while I worked on other reviews.  I peeked at it a few times wondering what madness would come from this end (pointing to my head).

Later, I noticed something peculiar.  One of the actors had their picture glued on.  It wasn’t just the face but the name as well.  A cut and paste job, if you will.  I even tried to scrape the top photograph off but that presented other challenges.  Without giving it a deeper meaning, I succumbed to my imagination and immediately thought the worst for the actor underneath.

But life happens to actors all the time – a birth, a death, eviction, car problems, creative differences, memory issues, laryngitis, a broken leg, poverty, a job, etc., an actor just moves on to the next role. – Narrator

The story is set in San Francisco. Lazaro (Jantonio Bague), a Cuban writing about revolutionary causes, finds himself in the politically active Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco in the later half of the 1960’s. 

Suddenly, hot and disoriented, Lazaro encounters an odd duck, Galahad (Raphael Corkhill), who imparts a potpourri of local causes that one could grasp if Galahad would just slow down. Galahad, an astute man, sees that Lazaro is searching for something or someone and he just hasn’t hit on the cause yet.  

But Lazaro, sweating in coat and tie, is suspicious of Galahad’s hippie ways, and his causes du jour, until he finds just the thing that satisfies his wants.  And that is the Manteca Café where he unexpectedly runs into a childhood friend Clio (Bernadette Speakes).

Clio is happy to see Lazaro.  Her father played in a band with Lazaro’s uncle in Cuba back in the day.   

Avoiding the subject, Lazaro tells Clio that he is there to interview Huey P. Newton for his book and needs a source to get to him.  Lazaro has come to the right place, as the Manteca Café is a house for political causes, food, and jazz. 

Derrex Brady

While there, another friend, Zeke (Derrex Brady) recognizes and embraces Lazaro and speaks of old times playing music in Cuba.  Today Zeke is a member of the Black Panther Party who is later joined by Clarence (Christopher Allen), a musician and Julliard-dropout. 

Zeke, in his brazen sincerity, emphatically pronounces the “3 Main Rules of Discipline” for Clarence, a new recruit.

            Obey orders in all your action.
         Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the poor and oppressed masses.
         Turn in everything captured from the attacking enemy.

Lazaro now finds the key to opening Huey Newton’s cell.  He asks Zeke if he will arrange an interview with him. Zeke doesn’t appear happy about making that happen but he agrees to try.

In the meantime, Lazaro asks Clio if he can stay there for the time being. She agrees to the arrangement for an old “friend”. Clio makes a cup of coffee for Lazaro and asks him about “Papa Ruben”.  Lazaro, now in an invidious position, hesitantly says he has died. She says she’s sorry but asks him why he hasn’t kept in touch.

“We had a revolution, you had a movement.” – Lazaro

Elizer Ortiz

Lost in the backdrop of his thoughts, Lazaro is now with Fidel Castro (Eliezer Ortiz) in Cuba ten years earlier as he is writing a book “A Prayer for the Infidel”.  Castro tells Lazaro to “Tell the truth, my son.” But his austere reply lacks warmth for the new leader of Cuba.

“Don’t call me that.” – Lazaro  

But back to present day, the revolution in Cuba has lost its appeal for Lazaro.   He left that fight.  Now he is searching for stories of humanitarian passions of the enraged masses all fighting for a fair piece of the pie.  Clio had a freedom school in Alabama but Alabama wasn’t ready for that so now, both of them, with prior battles behind them and somewhat demoralized, are now in San Francisco fighting a new fight.

“You Americans have more issues than most.” – Lazaro

“I missed you, I didn’t realize how much until now.” – Clio

Galahad interrupts the lovely proceedings with a plea for Lazaro to help him build Batá drums like the ones Lazaro made for Papa Ruben (Eliezer Ortiz) in Cuba. Lazaro is ambivalent and to discourage Galahad asks for the skin of a virgin goat, the reasons for which become apparent later in the play.

“That will be a beautiful drum.”

The Fringe Festival 2014 is a potpourri of different acts where one is given a space and the actors fill the space with a few props and set pieces. Not a bad idea, in fact a great idea if you want to get your play seen.

The one thing you can say about Kimba Henderson’s play is that it is infinitely enlightening; the writing is taut, and there is a vertiginous manner to all of the characters.  Each obstreperous personality is eagerly trying to clutch onto any tangible opportunity for a better life, not only for themselves for the people they represent. And those are good things.

But, on this night, actions could have been smoother, objectives clearer, and through line sharper. Sometimes, I really have to be hit in the head, with a blunt object, to understand what I have just witnessed.  (Manteca means oil or lard and there is a meaning here that I just can’t articulate or didn’t get.)

Kimba Henderson, the director, does a very fine job in guiding a group of seasoned actors.  Still the focus strayed from time to time and the relationships needed strengthening and the ending needed a stronger intimacy, with soap, water, and tears.   I will speak to this in the actions of the actors.  

Jantonio Bague as Lazaro has a very good look and does an impressive job on stage. But the Batá drums play a significant role and must always be a substantial part of his character’s motives from the moment he steps on stage. The Batá drums are the force that leads this character all the way from Cuba to San Francisco.  But in this performance and on this night, Bague does not give us the emotional roller coaster we need to really feel for this character, with a pain so deep it explains his reason for being.  Perhaps Bague should internally listen to the Batá drum as he lives the life of the character.  Also, his exigency for the interview is almost non-existent after the first few scenes. Still, there were a lot of good things coming from this actor and Bague has more than enough to complete this complex character.   

Raphael Corkhill 

Raphael Corkhill has a couple of roles.  The first was Galahad as a guy trying, maybe too hard, to save humanity and at times seemed like the comic foil.  He is a man into a lot of strange and wonderful things and one of them is the Batá drums with all the implication tied to this kind of drum, Santeria, et al.  He is a man willing to live life to the fullest grabbing every inch, understanding it all, and helping everyone in the process. That said, the character needs more of a multi-dimensional life, a plan to get to the end point.  We seem to lose him late in the play without a clear resolution. Corkhill does a lot of good work in this play and has a very nice presence. His other role is a State Trooper.

Bernadette Speakes does a nice job as Clio.  Clio needs a stronger objective.  Right now, she runs the restaurant and is a friend.  There’s not much creativity with those choices on stage.  This character needs to demand more from the other characters on stage.  We never get a sense that she is in love with her counterpart, or that she has any feelings for him at all.  There is a virtuous complacency in her portrayal and she does not even go as far as to play one male against the other.   She is there for a reason, but the reason needs purpose, a way of getting to her end point.  It’s mostly there in the writing, but the focus, the through line, needs a creative bite for a successful journey.

Derrex Brady plays Zeke.  Brady does a nice job with this character and has a very good look on stage. But why was he there? Why did he keep coming back?  Was it a safe house or a staging place for Black Panther meetings?  He knew the proprietor from Cuba but he didn’t have a strong relationship with her. Why keep coming back over and over again?  It was never really explained.  Also Brady needs the character to take joy in his job of being a black militant so that it makes sense when his words cause his underling to go through a great pain.  Also, no one is born into the Black Panther Party and to that end a history of his backstory needs depth and a reason for doing what he is doing now.

Eliezer Ortiz plays Papa Ruben and Fidel Castro and excels at both.  Ortiz has a method that is simple and to the point when playing each character and brings his own brand of humor to each role.  Ortiz is tremendous in the roles.

Christopher Allen does a fine job as Clarence.  Clarence, a once promising musician, leaves Julliard to come to San Francisco to be a part of the Black Panther Party.  Aside from that information, we don’t see the backstory of his performance, a reason for his leaving Julliard, and his cause to fight for justice.  Something has to be a little off for this character to do this or he needs a strong reason why he is there.  Neither was to be found on this night.  That said, Allen has a very good look and should do well in this industry.

Nicely produced by Kimba Henderson and Bernadette Speakes. The show ran on various nights and days during the Holly Fringe 2014 at The Elephant Space.  

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Assistant Director – Devonnie Black
Lighting Design/StageManager – Laure Jamme
Prop Mistress – Stayce Smith
Wall Painting Artist – Nika Mencarini

Run!  The next time it is around take someone who still has the revolutionary spirit ingrained into his or her being.

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