SONG OF SAD YOUNG MEN
ETA Creative Arts Foundation
Greenview Arts Center
Wanna work some social commentary into your play? If you lack imagination, you can employ the Shout and Leave No Doubt approach. By cramming truisms into the mouths of characters whose main function is to trumpet your views, you may be certain that your audience will get your message. If viewers possess the capacity for rational thought, however, they might be put off by this patronizing approach, which cripples Kay Cosgriff’s leaden drama Blanket Hill, about the tragedy at Kent State.
A second option, the Categorically Ahistorical Allegorical school, substitutes murky prose or abstract poetry for sloganeering, forcing the audience into the role of Secret Message Decoder. The most obvious (and often most successful) way to address societal ills in a play is to create three-dimensional characters in a plausible society and let social commentary arise organically from dialogue. Call it the Shut Up and Let Your Characters Talk school of drama, which has served writers from Shakespeare to Miller to Wilson (August and Lanford).
Carl Hancock-Rux’s Song of Sad Young Men is most successful when it employs the Shut Up approach, exploring the all-too-believable lives of everyday Americans who gather at Song’s Lounge, a seedy nightclub that provides little refuge from the bigotry, AIDS, homelessness, drug addiction, and gang warfare that have become commonplace. When the play veers off into passages of song, dance, and poetry in the Categorically Ahistorical Allegorical style, it loses its focus and intensity.
Song’s Lounge is a societal microcosm much like the bar in Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody or the lunch counter in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Named for former owner Charlie Song, this one-time haven for black artists and performers is now a crumbling relic where mad alcoholic prophet Charlie Song Jr., who was forced to sell his father’s legacy to white investors, drinks himself into oblivion. Bartender Boss incessantly reminisces about the good old days, when the city offered hope instead of blight. Here nightclub singer Reva dreams of a way out, gay poet Eddie scribbles poems for his deceased lover, short-order cook Malindy tries to shield her son from the temptations offered by shady businessman Ike Davis, while AIDS-infected prostitute Maxine Clyde allows her child to be taken away by the city’s welfare department. A dancing spirit of death hovers over the proceedings.
What’s remarkable about Hancock-Rux’s drama is that despite the massive agenda (pick any modern topic–sexism, racism, single-parent households–it’s here), his dialogue rarely feels forced. He only gets preachy at the very end, in a sermon delivered by Charlie Song Jr., and it is so brilliantly performed by the utterly believable Earl Alfonso Fox that even this can be forgiven.
The only time Song of Sad Young Men falters is when Hancock-Rux strays from his well-honed dramatic style into ill-conceived song and poetry sequences. Musical numbers are capably performed by Elaine Joyner as Reva and backed by a stand-out jazz trio, but they’re superfluous. And the playwright’s forays into poetry, especially in a clunky soliloquy about the nature of love, delivered by Maxine, add little to the plot.
Leaving aside a couple of uncharacteristically wooden and substandard performances, ETA Creative Arts Foundation, under the direction of Runako Jahi, delivers its traditionally superb production values. Dorian Sylvain’s gritty set design is right on target. Elfeigo Goodum is chillingly evil as the amoral Ike, and Lora Wesley’s tough and sardonic single mother Malindy provides the evening’s biggest laughs as well as its most affecting moments.
I’m always distrustful of plays that give characters labels instead of names. Kay Cosgriff’s production of her own work Blanket Hill, about the 1970 Kent State shooting of student demonstrators, alternates between scenes of Students #1-#5 debating the merits of student protest, National Guardsmen #1-#3 arguing over their responsibilities, and Man and Woman lecturing each other about the facts of Kent State. We learn plenty of intriguing facts but fail to connect emotionally with Cosgriff’s nameless characters.
In her director’s statement (curiously, Blanket Hill’s press materials devote a page to statements from the playwright and the director, even though they are the same person), Cosgriff maintains that the essence of her work is “the bombardment of facts” and proclaims “strongly” that theater “can be didactic as well as entertaining.” Not a bad philosophy for a lecture, but not so great for a play that must interest us in the lives of its characters if its ideas are to carry any weight.
At the barracks the National Guardsmen play a highly uninteresting and dramatically implausible game of point/counterpoint in which each character, at one time or another, seems to argue both sides of an issue. The student characters can be summed up in a few words. There’s the Genius Hippie who plays guitar and calls everybody “uptight,” the Cynical Bookworm, the Princess, the Black Power Activist, and the Prototypical Feminist who says “right on” a lot.
There’s no drama in the characters’ discussions because there’s only one side that anybody in the audience would agree with. Is there anybody out there who’s not sympathetic to the protesters’ point of view? Cosgriff further undercuts her flat characters by making them mouth preposterous dialogue that might even have made Spiro Agnew chortle. “This has nothing to do with us,” one student says of the protesters. “It’s not a war; it’s a police action,” another says of Vietnam. And, displaying what appears to be a ridiculous lack of self-awareness, one of the characters announces, “We have all the freedom we want in this country. If my number is called up [in the draft], I go.”
There are moments when Barbara Barrows as Woman and Paul Mullins as Student #2 rise above the material and give some clever and insightful line readings. But most of the time this is a very sluggish production of a very dull play.