“Nothing is easy and simple anymore,” declares Lori, one of the protagonists of Blackout03. Both plays I attended at HERE Arts Center as part of the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival, Blackout03 and Bed Bugs and Hot Pockets, revealed to the audience the complications of living in a post-everything world, with a focus on urban subjects.
The longer of the two and also the more complex is Blackout03, which takes place on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Starring a quartet of friends, two black and two white coupled by race, the play moves swiftly out of the light banter of friendship into the murkier discussions around race and equality. The following descriptive line uttered by Sam – the white guy, played by Alex Major, sets off the entire conflict: “hood-y looking guy.” It is not exactly clear what Sam means – is the guy wearing a hoodie or does he appear as though he might be from the ‘hood’ or maybe both?
The issue is further complicated by where the hosts (the white couple) live – Brooklyn. The ramifications of the gentrification they represent are directly being felt by Tiffany (played by the star of the night, LaTonia Phipps), whose grandmother can no longer afford to live in the up-and-coming borough. In Phipps’ hands, the central monologue of the play shines. The lines, written by Kate Bell, are cutting, containing the sharp edges of argument and anger. Lines like “watch what you say to me because I deserve that” and “I’m compromised just by existing here” are spoken by Phipps with the ferocity of a tigress. Her Tiffany is motivated by protecting her more appeasing lover Jonathan, played by a delightful Chinaza Uche. Jonathan spends most of the play avoiding the ‘race question,’ taking heart instead in his financial success as an investment banker. But when Sam poses the question “What is oppressing the black Yale graduate?” Jonathan offers the following response: “You know who always cared that I was black? I did.”
At the end of the play we are left with more questions than answers, pondering over how to live in our hybrid selves, how to save friendships and romances and communities, and ultimately, ourselves.
Shonali Bhowmik’s play Bed Bugs and Hot Pockets grapples with the question of saving the self in a concrete jungle such as New York. She sets the work in a CVS, frequented by stoners, workaholics, mixed race couples, and one classic New Yorker – the one that dreams of the better New York when everyone was friendly and kind and had time to connect, a time no one else remembers but her. Connie, played by Katina Corrao, is the hilarious blend of kindness and harshness that characterizes the city. The narrative is framed by her flirtatious exchanges with the only ‘human’ remaining at CVS, Bill, played by the charismatic Chirstian Felix. Felix exudes the kind of old-world charm that reminds me of the impeccable customer service at the historic Sardis. Bill represents everything we’ve lost in the world of iPhones and self-checkouts and automated responders.
That profound sense of loss is palpable in the play, even though it’s a comedy. The announcements enacted by Sean Eden are hilarious and also, touchingly sad. And as someone who plans to live in New York for much of my life, I couldn’t wonder if there is something to be said for those of us who choose to exist on a plane of temporary connections. If we prefer to retreat and come out only for that occasional drink or maybe for that hot pocket, so what?
But Bhowmik’s tale is so honestly told and so refreshingly imagined that she convinces even the most disaffected New Yorker that there’s more. What is that exactly? No answers are provided.
Refusing to tie up loose ends and round out every arc is the key to the two playwrights’ success. Here’s to the questions that plague us and the writers that keep asking them in new ways. If the works reviewed here are any indication, the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival, running until May 30, 2015, will be a treat for the inquiring and questioning theatre viewer.