I don’t want to make overblown claims for Loy Webb’s new play, The Light. It’s got its problems. You could argue, for starters, that it’s not really a play at all but a 90-minute teaching moment on the subjects of race and gender—and, given its extraordinary idealism, an act of wish fulfillment, as well. Webb’s characters are supposed to be average people, a school principal and a firefighter, yet they make choices that seem absurdly noble to a cynic like me. They sometimes speak to each other as if they’d pulled their talking points off a Twitter manifesto.
But if their language can turn artificial, they’re at least saying what needs to be said. And if their actions appear unlikely, it’s only because Webb is brave enough to put her vision before an audience with what might be called a fierce generosity. The playwright’s good faith ennobles the rest of us. Play or not, this is a powerful piece of work.
The principal is a thirtysomething black woman named Genesis, or Gen; the firefighter, her serious beau, a thirtysomething black man named Rashad. Tonight is their two-year dating anniversary, and Rashad has gone far, far beyond the call of duty to score two tickets to a concert featuring the couple’s sentimental favorite, Nola Adé. But the concert is being produced by a performer Gen knows from college, where, she says, he committed a rape. His Chance the Rapper-esque good works over the intervening decade notwithstanding, she refuses to attend a show in which he’s had a hand. She’s adamant about it, too. Though Rashad wants desperately to save the evening, he thinks Gen’s being unreasonable. Things escalate.
Much of what follows is predictable. The politics of Gen and Rashad’s positions kick in with a vengeance, as do their personal demons. If you wanted to get reductive about it, you could say that the situation boils down to a struggle between hashtag ideologies: believing the woman vs. supporting the black man. The wonder of The Light is that it so seldom feels reductive, even when you can see the next move coming a mile away. Part of that has to do with the writing: Webb allows her characters a bickery/funny intimacy while reserving the right to make them absolutely merciless when the situation demands. The other part has to do with Toma Langston’s remarkable production for the New Colony, which carries their dynamic to the stage in no uncertain terms, and grounds both their harshest moments and leaps of faith in deeply observed psychology. Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. has his hurts as Rashad, yet he’s most vivid (not to say amusing) as a man in love, bewildered by the forces he’s set loose and slowly coming to understand that he doesn’t get a replay. Tiffany Oglesby’s Gen is all pure, shivery truth.
The Light Through 2/4: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, thenewcolony.org, $20.