The Bronx is Up – and Dancing to Hip Hop – in CATF’s WELCOME TO FEAR CITY

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The Bronx is Up – and Dancing to Hip Hop – in CATF’s WELCOME TO FEAR CITY

Dyllon Burnside

Dyllon Burnside

Posted on July 15, 2017

Welcome to Fear City, premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, shambles along amiably, looking as if it has no more greater object than to be a loose black family dramedy set forty years ago. That is, until it dawns on you that the play’s ambition is to be nothing less than a snapshot of a time and place where a lot of things happened, and one vitally important thing, hip hop, came into being.

The other things that happened, as depicted by playwright Kara Lee Corthron, included the tightening of the financial screws on lower middle-class black families in the Bronx, and the shutting down of economic opportunity, with attendant impacts upon living arrangements, health and emotional well-being. The other things included urban decay and what was euphemistically called urban renewal, which focused largely on the destruction of buildings, i.e. the cityscape within which black families were stiill trying to live their lives. The other things included the rise of aggressive policing of minority young men, via endless stops and searches.

We see all these things in the lives of: E, pictured above (Dyllon Burnside), a young man with underemployed mechanical aptitude, afflicted by gay impulses he does not want to deal with, and by the urge to make some kind of mark in a worse-than-indifferent world; his mother Wanda (Cherene Snow), who can’t safely take in her family because of Section 8 housing rules but does it anyway, and whose respiratory problems mandate a visit to the ER, but whose finances will not permit it; his sister Neesy (Adrian Kiser), academically gifted but not smart in love, who had followed a man to California only to be ditched, and has now stumbled home to support herself with topless waitressing; and his friend Cheky (Vincent Ramirez), whose distinction is that he has a “J-O-B” as a UPS deliveryman, but lives for the block parties where he serves as a DJ.

Their joint frustrations wind them all up tighter and tighter like the mainspring of a clock, until they must find release. We see E slipping into nefarious activities connected with “urban renewal,” as he is observed sardonically by a Rat (Yaegel T. Welch), and fighting to have his rap poetry attended to (his delivery is not very good). We see Neesy flirting with another potential Mr. Wrong. We see Wanda’s health declining. And we see Checky scrappily going on assembling his career, sparking dance parties with stolen electronic gear. Meanwhile, fire is literally consuming the neighborhood.

And in the midst of all this, we start seeing performances of this new rhyme chanted over rhythm tracks as the ensemble dances. We can feel how this new artistic form responds to the pressure building up inside each of them. The power of this then-aborning musical style is irresistibly conveyed at the end of the first act, in a performance that works especially well in the confined space of a small theater-in-the-round. This is a play, not a musical, but this proto-hip hop performance is recognizably a first-half closer.

The play would work fine if it stopped there. The second act is not as strong, and, comparing what was on stage with what was in the script, it becomes apparent that that act is still more of a work in progress. Among the defects is a lengthy transfiguration sequence, where the ensemble devolves first into a sort of enactment of white racist tropes, a minstrel show version of themselves, and then (if I’m understanding correctly) a sort of surreal essential version of themselves, confused by gibberish talk. Then there is a bring-to-date on the characters, who have turned out mostly all right after the scarifying events of 1977. Finally, there is a kind of flash forward in which subjects like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are conjured up, leading to a moment where one character exhorts the audience to declare its solidarity with raised fists — and we do. And we walk out happy because we did.

Two observations about that raised-fist moment. First, as already described, it is the culmination of some sloppy playwriting. Second, it still works. The crowd with whom I saw the play, mostly senior and white like me, would not seem like an obvious target to be solicited for the gesture, nor an obvious demographic for cooperating and joining in, especially when (to convey the request) the fourth wall is broken (which in itself produces awkwardness). But even through the chaos, the show has built up a momentum and an appeal, especially through late iterations of song and dance, that transcends everyone’s identity. At that moment we all come from the Bronx. Also, we are crazy about those characters, and want to say a rousing goodbye to them.

I hope the sloppiness gets fixed, though; Corthron should lose the transfiguration and the deliberate gibberish talk near the end. I would also lose the Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter material, which is worthwhile but badly anachronistic in a play intended to capture a moment forty years back.

Instead, I’d urge Corthron to focus on her own title, or perhaps better on what lies behind it. There are two different kinds of fear referenced in the play. One is the fear that informed a 1975 pamphlet further described by Corthron in the program notes entitled Welcome to Fear City: A Survivor’s Guide for Visitors. It was handed out to airport visitors. As the Rat summarizes: “Some corn-fed meatball from Iowa is in Fear City limits just by goin’ to Broadway to see fuckin’ Annie.” Call it white fear for short. It is overblown and foolish. Then there’s the black variety: E’s fear of asking a boss for a raise, and his fear of doing too much in his questionable cooperation with urban renewal, and Wanda’s fear of going to the ER. Where exactly Corthron is going with this theme, however, is not clear, because black fear is not always unreasonable, and often responds reasonably to the objective situation.

If the play is going to aspire to be more than amiable family drama, it should head deeper into that subject – or perhaps into the subject that the label “fear” is a not-quite-successful-yet stab at naming. The four central characters all end up transcending something by the end. Maybe fear is the wrong word for it. The transcendence (not the word) is what matters and what we admire. I am certain that the characters’ refusals to give up on themselves or on the Bronx, expressed in but not limited to the music, is what the audience was identifying with when it raised its collective fist. (Not that most of us would have disagreed with the proposition that Black Lives do indeed Matter, I should add.)

So, yes, it needs work. But there are sometimes shows that need work that deserve your love already. This is one of them.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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