ETA Creative Arts Foundation

There is a moment–and it is just a moment–when Sons and Fathers of Sons starts to look like drama. The moment occurs when a student at an all-black college stands up and challenges a bombastic professor who is arguing that African tribal belief systems are as valid as the realism of Western culture. This “essentialism” of African tribes–the belief in dreams, in visitations from the dead, and so on–is simply another form of reality, he says.

This gets the normally placid student riled. “I know a man who spends his paycheck every week playing the numbers,” the student says, “and every time he says the right number came to him in a dream, or the voice of a dead ancestor spoke to him. And every week his wife and his children go hungry. You might call him an essentialist, but I call him a fool.”

Suddenly, the play has a little conflict, and the conflict begins to reveal the motivations of these two characters. Suddenly, the play has a little drama.

But, as I said, this lasts only a moment. The rest of the play, by Ray Aranha, is a combination of pathos, hokum, and pretentious nonsense that rambles on for two and a half excruciating hours. After taking aim at a simple idea–fathers often have a profound and irreversible influence on their sons–Aranha takes a scattershot approach to his target. He keeps firing off loosely constructed scenes, hoping a few of them will hit the bull’s-eye.

Most of them are way off the mark. At its best, Sons is an ambitious attempt to depict the ambivalence between fathers and their male offspring; at its worst, the play is a sophomoric mess–the work of a writer trying hard to be profound.

Sons is actually three plays in one. There’s the story of Reuben, a black sharecropper in Mississippi in 1943 whose wife is expecting their first baby. Before the birth, Reuben is hunted down and killed by white men in an attack that is only vaguely explained.

Another story takes place ten years later, focusing on Reuben’s baby, whose name is Emmitt. The boy is being raised by his mother, who works in a fish-processing plant but still accepts financial help from Bubba, her dead husband’s brother. Eventually, Bubba demands sexual repayment from his sister-in-law, then becomes jealous when she takes in a man named Johnny, who is being tracked by bloodhounds because he killed a white landlord in a fight. Johnny becomes like a father to Emmitt, but the boy turns him in for some reason, forcing Johnny to flee.

In the third story, set in the early 1960s, Johnny has become the professor whose ideas about African tribal beliefs are challenged. He is also a father figure to some of his students.

Aranha shuttles back and forth between the second and third stories. In between scenes, three women dressed in colorful rags move props and comment on the action of the play. They serve the function of a Greek chorus, but their exaggerated behavior makes them look more like vaudeville comedians in blackface.

Some of the lines get laughs. A college student describing his philandering father says: “My old man has more women than you can shake a stick at. I keep running into kids who look like me.”

Some of the characters verge on being complex, such as a college student who feels guilty about having sex with a coed who sleeps with every guy who asks.

But most of the play is juvenile and mundane, and some parts are just plain sloppy. The college professor, for example, tells one of his students to read America, by John Dos Passos. However, Dos Passos didn’t write a novel called America. He wrote the trilogy called U.S.A.

Some of the actors are strong, particularly Ellis Foster and Darryl Robinson when they play college buddies. Dawn Keith is convincing in both of her roles–as Emmitt’s mother and as the oversexed coed. And although he’s prone to overacting, Runako Jahi gives a persuasive performance as the professor.

Despite their ability, these actors can’t conceal the weakness of this play. I understand that the ETA Creative Arts Foundation is trying to nurture the work of aspiring playwrights. Such an admirable venture is sure to produce an occasional failure.

But I can’t understand how a play so desperately in need of rewriting got all the way to the production stage. Just cutting the script would have helped enormously. If one-third of the pages had been discarded randomly, the play would be much better. If they had been removed thoughtfully by the director, the outline of a narrative might have been apparent. And if they had been removed by the playwright himself, who knows? Aranha might have figured out what he wants to say.