Strong performances compensate for minimal production values in this dramatic comedy by Harvey Williams. The play depicts a garrulous street-corner philosopher known only as Old School (Granvile T. O’Neal), whose omnipresent bottle in a brown paper sack suggests a stage of perpetual intoxication. He dispenses opinions on the state of the inner city and offers unsolicited advice to others, especially two young people: Duce (Petey McGee) and Leslie (Aishah Ogbeh), who have a child.
Leslie wants Duce to step up and fully accept the responsibilities of a father, but Duce complains that his criminal record limits his opportunities for earning a livelihood. Leslie takes matters into her own hands and reports him to social services, hoping the agency can force him to do the right thing.
Later, Duce is wounded in a drive-by shooting in which a friend is killed, and he’s brought in for aggressive questioning by a police detective with a quirky personality (Arthur R. Newton III). Elsewhere in the police station, Leslie is interviewed by Ms. Stone (Victoria Barbee), a social services counselor.
Ultimately, Old School barges into the station house and insists that a day of reckoning is at hand. In a second act that morphs from melodrama to light comedy, we discover that there’s more to Old School than meets the eye and that his relationship to Leslie and Duce is more layered than an old busybody simply telling young people what to do.
Williams, who directed the show, is dealing with profoundly serious subject matter — how to escape cycles of poverty and violence — but he does it with a delicate touch. Many of his lines are memorable, either for their insight or their comic impact (if not both).
Integral to the show are Theodore “Priest” Hughes and Desmond “3-3-7” Jones, poets who perform as the Recipe Poetry Guild and whose duets and solo performances at strategic moments enhance the play. Their material doesn’t address the plot directly, but it reflects the broader issues informing the play, including fatherhood, a weak education system and the effects of violence. Their intricate rhymes are consistently surprising and often funny. And as performers, they have charisma to burn.
O’Neal is at his expansive best as Old School. Clearly the actor relishes the opportunity to inhabit a rich role with most of the script’s best laugh lines. Most impressive is Ogbeh, whose intensity and emotional depth as Leslie make the character as likable as she is formidable.
By comparison, McGee is a mild presence, although he exhibits bursts of sharp comic timing. Barbee brings a charismatic glow to the stage as Mrs. Stone and creates a warm but occasionally sharp-tongued character. Newton, who has been absent from local stages for several years, brings a quiet, magnetic stage presence to the show as the insecure detective.
At times Newton rushes his dialogue. But he’s not alone. On opening night the actors more than once stepped on one another’s lines and appeared to fumble dialogue.
Chances are, the performances will tighten up as the run progresses. But the show’s strengths outweigh any weaknesses. At times Williams’ balance between the comic and dramatic isn’t as precise as it needs to be. But his play does get you to think — about the real challenges facing some folks at a time when solutions to social problems remain maddeningly elusive.