Chicago Theatre Company

When Joe (“The Brown Bomber”) Louis met German Max Schmeling for a second time in 1938 (he’d lost to Schmeling in ’36), what ensued was not simply a boxing match. To the American public it was a chance to meet the rising Nazi party mano a mano and prove that an honest American just couldn’t be beaten. More important to black Americans was the fact that representing the U.S. against the Aryan superman was the first black champ to hold the title since Gentleman Jack Johnson in 1908. But unlike Johnson, Louis had the support of the nation.

This is the backdrop for Side Pockets, Aaron Iverson’s Harlem pool-hall drama about three young black men who are prompted by the ’38 fight to reevaluate futures they thought were set in stone. Produced by the Chicago Theatre Company and superbly acted by a strong ensemble, the production suffers only occasionally from Kevin Shine’s direction, which is awkward at times and flat at others. It’s easy to forgive Shine, however, since he wisely cast performers so engaging that they overcome what little of the direction intrudes.

The owner of the pool hall, Mr. Jenkins (the excellent Cedric Young), is old enough to remember when Johnson won the title back in ’08. It would be hard for him to forget–as a result of that victory Jenkins was so severely beaten by three angry white men that he was bedridden for a week. (Three to one, by the way, are the odds favoring Louis to win.) Jenkins tells his three young patrons, “You all depend too much on these fights.”

They haven’t got much else to depend on. Ray (Victor Wells) wants to be a baseball player; he even played once or twice with the black New York Giants, but in 1938 white teams wouldn’t play black teams. “The only way I’m gettin’ into Yankee Stadium is if I buy a ticket,” he says. And there’s no money to be made playing baseball with the black teams. Convinced that some people are just born lucky and that he’s not one of them, Ray spends his days shooting pool. Stan (Evan Lionel) is a smooth, self-involved cheat who believes in hard though not necessarily honest work. He has a grudging respect for cockroaches: “Anything that can survive that tough must have a place in this world.” Stan believes that his place is playing the trumpet, and if he’ll only hang tough it’ll pay off. Meanwhile he owes Fred (Trent Harrison Smith) $20–the price of one ticket to the Louis-Schmeling fight. Fred is the only one with a job, but he traded in a dream for it. He’s practical, levelheaded, and on his way to losing his soul. By leaning on Stan for the $20 he pushes for a defeat of his spirit, too.

Iverson’s characters are complicated creatures with unspoken codes of honor–likable one moment, irresponsible, sour, and downright mean the next. Side pockets are the hardest shots to sink, and it’s an open question whether cuing up for them is an act of perseverance or idiocy. The best odds a black man had in 1938 were three to one against; Joe Louis could be looked at by the men in the pool hall as an exception, or a tribute to hanging tough, or a miracle.

Side Pockets is oddly ambiguous about any concrete effects the big fight has on its characters, but the characters themselves are no less compelling for that ambiguity; still, the production sadly lacks the buildup of tension required in the second act. Even at its weakest, though, with the help of Patrick O. Kerwin’s detailed pool-hall set the Chicago Theatre Company delivers an interesting slice of 1938 Harlem.


ETA Creative Arts Foundation

As explained in Michael Myers’s The Brother and the BAP, a sister is someone who welcomes a one-night stand and won’t mind if you don’t call her, while a BAP (“black American princess”) will be a nuisance about it. A sister “wants to be wined and dined, but will settle for less.” A BAP “wouldn’t even consider not wearing any underwear, and the underwear she’s got on costs more than the tie you’re wearing.”

That’s about as endearing as this play, produced by the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, ever gets. Such observations could only be coming from a group of backward slobs sitting in a bar; unfortunately, one of them turns out to be the play’s protagonist. Even more unfortunately, he engages in an ugly sight gag early on: just informed that one of the women who used to hang out in this bar recently died of AIDS, Harvey (Oba William King, who usually has better sense) does a huge take to his groin, mugging unhappiness. Somehow, cheap shtick about AIDS does little to warm me up toward a production, particularly one in which the protagonist refers to women as “chocolate-covered cherries” or “caramels with creamy centers.” Directed by Kemati Janice Porter, it is stunningly offensive to men and women alike.

The play follows Harvey in his relationship with BAP Jeffrey (the male name is a caprice–she is played by Chantee Davis). Jeffrey is a well-heeled young professional who tells corny jokes, still lives with her parents, speaks assertively, and is on the whole annoying. Harvey is a schoolteacher who runs to his barfly buddies and heaps abuse on Jeffrey’s head whenever she makes the mistake of being too rich, assertive, annoying, or unwilling. Like the script, neither character is particularly likable or logical.

In one especially infuriating scene a waiter harasses Jeffrey outrageously for no earthly reason, and then when she gets (understandably) snappish with him he recommends “a glass of vino with a Midol chaser.” Most women I know would have planted a fork in the idiot’s forehead. Most men I know would not have sat quietly by while a date was unduly insulted, and then upstaged her monologue by slurping a plateful of linguini.

In the end Harvey admits he’s been something of a pig, but by then we’ve sat through two hours of jokes at Jeffrey’s expense. His confession and the moral quick fix that follows ring patently false.