Last November American Theater Company premiered Fulfillment, Thomas Bradshaw’s play about Michael, a 40-year-old black lawyer who’s convinced himself he’s on his way to living his version of the American dream, complete with randy white girlfriend and expensive new condo (including cabinetry done in Tanzanian Anigre wood). Turns out he’s wrong.
Michael’s tragedy repeats itself as farce—political farce—in Bradshaw’s latest, Carlyle, getting a boisterous premiere of its own now at Goodman Theatre.
The title character is an African-American lawyer, of course—only he’s not an associate at a high-powered New York firm, like Michael is. Carlyle Meyers has ventured much deeper into the belly of the beast. He works for the Republican Party.
And he’s happy to do it, too. Carlyle comes from money. His dad’s is a classic ghetto-kid-made-good story: worked his way up from the mean streets to attend Harvard (“For a black man to get into Harvard in my day he had to be 12 times better than all of the other white students”) and build a career as a Wall Street banker. Thanks to him and his Reaganite ways, Carlyle grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where streets with names like Canterbury Drive don’t sound so mean, lined as they are with houses that go for six- and seven-figure prices
Not that Carlyle hasn’t struggled with his identity. As a teen at Adams Country Day he fell under the influence of Shaniqua and Tyrone, poor urban blacks admitted under a diversity program. They called him out as a fake and a traitor (“You talk white, dress white, and act white. You an Oreo”) before making him over. In a flash Carlyle went from skiing triple-black-diamond slopes in Vail to wearing a thick gold chain and inhaling the Rastafarian worldview. His biology grade plummeted to a C+.
Fortunately for the conservative movement, Carlyle’s white schoolmates carried out a successful intervention. In Benjamin Kamine’s staging, a preppy cardigan drops from the heavens above when Carlyle comes to his senses. He picks it up and lovingly knots the sleeves around his neck.
The rest is meant to be history. Bradshaw’s premise is that Carlyle has been engaged by Goodman to be the subject of a theatrical inquiry into the question of how a black person becomes a Republican. In a very funny early passage Carlyle explains that the company was nearing the bottom of the barrel—having been rebuffed by everyone from Condoleezza Rice to Herman Cain, then having to rebuff Ben Carson (“Of course he said yes, but his first draft had a whole section about how he was a Golden Gloves boxer and never lost a match because of the insatiable rage he felt inside”)—when he was put forward for the job.
But Carlyle doesn’t intend to be anybody’s case in point. He’s got an agenda of his own, which he pursues under the tutelage of his ambitious and, yes, randy white wife, Janice.
One problem with all this is that Carlyle’s attitudes and excesses can’t compete with those currently on display among his real-life colleagues in Republican politics. During this season of Trump and Cruz there’s something quaint, even nostalgic, about a conservative political operative who embraces his party’s establishment to the point of cherishing Florida for being the state that turned the 2000 election for Dubya. Who does that anymore?
Bradshaw’s 80-minute spectacle offers its quota of vivid absurdities, though, particularly for those of us who share what comes across clearly enough as a left-leaning perspective. Apropos of Carlyle’s idolization of Clarence Thomas, we get a hilarious/horrifying series of scenarios speculating on what really happened between the Supreme Court justice and Anita Hill. Tyrone and Shaniqua’s lessons in blackness offer a neat gloss on how fact can mix with folklore and anger to produce strange philosophy. And the scene where Janice’s family first meets Carlyle and his dad, each side checking out the other’s GOP bona fides, is a minor classic of its kind.
Meanwhile, James Earl Jones II (who’s not the son of that James Earl Jones) is a revelation throughout. A longtime Chicago actor, he’s had a journeyman’s career but never a showcase like the one he gets here. And he nails it with a Candide-like enthusiasm that stretches from cartoonish innocence—pretty much skipping across the stage—to a jovial opportunism shaded just this side of calculation. It’s Jones’s role. v