The Box: A Black Comedy
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The Box: In brief
Fresh from its triumph with last year's Good Person of Szechwan, Foundry Theatre presents Marcus Gardley's new satire of racial profiling and police harassment. The cast of five, directed by Seth Bockley, includes Sheldon Best and Mikeah Ernest Jennings.
The Box: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Even as you're laughing at The Box: A Black Comedy, you'll find yourself clenching your fists in your lap. Rage and delight are strangely intermixed in Marcus Gardley's myth-infused indictment of our mushrooming prison industry, and the cocktail can make you dizzy.
Incarceration is America's black plague, and in his verse drama, Gardley (On the Levee) shines a mordantly funny light at its telltale lesions and buboes, daring to diagnose it. The cure he leaves to others, but he can tell us that ignoring our prison addiction hasn't made it go away. Much of the astringent wit focuses on the audience's own lethargy: “Call it a comedy if you have to,” says a desperate man, trying to smuggle his rap manifesto to the world beyond bars. Even we wouldn't have come, he implies, if we'd known shit was about to get so serious.
And honestly, shit got serious right after the rousing opening bit. “Come to prison!” five cheerful prisoners shout. “You could be in the best shape of your life!” Once we're “inside,” though, the five fall instantly to the task of acting out the sad tale of a jailed inventor desperate for parole.
Gardley hangs his play on an armature of Greek myths and Grimm fairy tales: Labyrinth designer Daedalus becomes lifer Deadlust (Leon Addison Brown), whose high-flying, weed-dealing son (Sheldon Best) goes by the ill-starred name of Icarus. Will Deadlust's son escape the magnetic pull of petty crime and disproportionate ("three strikes" law–mandated) time? The father's struggle to get out, and the son's seemingly preordained tumble into disaster, bracket a bitingly hilarious scene in Icarus's New York neighborhood, where suddenly fairy-tale logic rules. Imagine Into the Woods, if the Big Bad Wolves were the NYPD, and a young man might be stopped and frisked simply for wearing his little red (riding) hoodie.
The poor-theater setting (Mimi Lien has turned echoing Irondale into a low-ceilinged locker room) and mythic structure allow all sorts of lively invention. Comic treasure Mikeah Ernest Jennings plays Ferryman Show-Ron (né Charon) floating along in a mop bucket, and director Seth Bockley and the marvelous company find a thousand things to do with a stationary bike and that brace of lockers. More importantly, though, the tale-as-old-as-time dramaturgy makes us feel the helpless rage of black men whose stories seem to have already been written for them.
Gardley writes in verse, which can sound like earnest, high-flown spoken-word poetry or—more excitingly—like knockabout Molière. Frequently, his language is sublime, but it does somehow always seem less powerful the more consciously it tries to sound uplifting. It seems suited best to either jokes or fury, particularly in one explosive aria in which Gardley takes aim at the word nigger. Jennings again: “Today I pull the trigger / I kill this word ’cause this word it's a killer.… There are less insults in the world for that son of a bitch Hitler / And he ain't never been called nobody's nigger.” It's not the first time Jennings has stopped the show—his adorably splenetic Grandma (“Look at yourself! Now look at Oprah!”) kept shutting down the fairy-tale scenes. But this time he freezes time with sheer rage, and the warm room goes chill. The play may go on, but your mind keeps revolving through that speech, his outraged cry. You'll clap yourself silly at the end of this thing—but you damn sure won't call it a comedy.—Theater review by Helen Shaw