Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Part spoken word, part choreoplay (a play that uses considerable choreography), and part amped-up aggression, playwright, director and choreographer Layon Gray's Webeime celebrates the essence of black men without excluding other demographics. This is not an easy feat because the marketing campaign (“7 black men One story”), all black male cast, Motown choreography and Afrocentric score seem initially to cater to black men. However, the show quickly delves into a universal theme: the horrors of abuse and its subsequent side effects.
Sporting dapper, black garb with fedoras and red ties, the Black Gents of Hollywood creep in from behind the audience, chanting “We Be Who I Be. That's Me. Can't you see?” to full effect. The costume choices by Steve Moreau immediately establish them as entertainers and as the suave gents they purport to be, save for the casual sneakers that complete the outfits. The chanting and the title of this play entreat an understanding of the very multi-layered inmate character, and the diversity of his experiences, good and bad.
The Workshop Jewel Box Theater's small space can scarcely contain the cast's presence, but Gray plans their movement well to fit the limitations. In general, the performers are charismatic, led well in that regard by Thom Scott during his overextended monologue/story about Janie. They swagger one minute, agonize the next, mingling hubris with pain and cutting the tension of intense scenes with song. There is frequent reiteration of lines for emphasis, and wails of anguish to signal the beginning of scenes and further descent into self-reflection. Emotions rise in a crescendo, and fall into gut-wrenching sobs.
The actors work well together, but the eighth character, the one from which all others spring, sticks out like a sore thumb. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, the inmate (underused but effective Don Swaby) sits quietly on stage, silently scribbling in a notebook until the last ten minutes of the play. Because his character is not established in the beginning, his closing monologue, although integral to the play, does not resonate as strongly as it should.
Gray's directing is rudimentary, but he is able to elicit some strong performances from his fellow cast. Lamman Rucker shines as the adolescent victim of repeated rape, nailing his portrayal of a vulnerable boy beset by a harsh childhood and a prevailing desire for love. In fact, love is the key ingredient lacking in the inmate's life, having a propensity to give it but never receive it. This theme reverberates through all the characters, manifesting itself in different ways. The scene that has Rucker on his back with his thighs splayed in the air is made even more gripping by the demonic figures in masks that revolve around him, ushering in the vibrations that mimic the hideous act. It is unforgettable and deeply profound.
Gray weighs in on the action himself, delivering a strong monologue about not belonging on death row, and being a product of his ill nurturing. He puts his heart into this play, but skimps on the details. The reason for the inmate's execution sentence is not revealed until 75 minutes into the show, and there is no elaboration. Gray would have done well to introduce this fact earlier to give the audience the framework necessary to assess his peaceful resolution. As it stands, guessing what the crime is lends itself to much distraction. And because there is no linear narrative and only episodic memories, one can only infer the reasons for the crime with no evidence. Memories of Janie are the only positive ones, and they are not sufficient to anchor the inmate to normalcy and temporary happiness, particularly since the memories become dour.
Webeime is a warrior cry after the bloody battle has been fought and survived. Hope springs where we dare not believe it can, and the inmate comes to terms with his life's struggles. With some fine tuning, it is possible for the plot to approximate the writer's passion and skill for drama. In its current state, it is still a mighty contender.
Through Sunday, Jul 29th.
WorkShop Theatre: 312 W. 36th St. 4th Floor