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  • Theater, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

ToasT: Theater review by Raven Snook

Best known for his multiyear stint on Def Poetry Jam and his harrowing hip-hop memoir, County of Kings, Lemon Andersen (working solely as playwright, not performer) fuses black oral narratives with poetic prowess for this epic about life behind bars. Commissioned by the Public Theater and directed by his longtime collaborator, Elise Thoron, ToasT is set a few days before the real-life Attica Prison riot in 1971, but its fictional inmates are inspired by folklore characters. There's de facto leader Dolomite (Keith David, both scary and sympathetic), violent loner Stackolee (John Earl Jelks), maternal trans woman Annabelle Jones (Phillip James Brannon), galvanizing activist Hard Rock (F. Hill Harper of CSI: NY fame) and Puerto Rican wordsmith Jesse James (Armando Riesco)—the latter presumably a stand-in for Andersen, who spent a few years in the clink before becoming a full-time artist.

The narrative is as stark as a cell: Hard Rock encourages his fellow prisoners to help him fight for better living conditions, but Dolemite is reluctant to comply since parole is near. Some of the political, social and racial discussions come off as a bit too neat—especially when the stereotypically bigoted warden (Dan Butler, doing what he can with an underwritten role) is around. But the dialogue soars when it turns to "toasts," poetic interpretations of iconic African-American tales, such as “The Signifying Monkey” and “Shine on the Titanic.” Even if they're unfamiliar (full disclosure: much googling went into this review), it's exhilarating to hear the men try to one-up each other with intricate and comical yarns; meanwhile, their backstory soliloquies verge on Shakespearean.

Although at times the inmates come off more as archetypes than fleshed-out characters, the veteran cast imbues all with humanity. Each is worthy of empathy, decency and the freedom to want something more. Were society a little different, they could easily have ended up on the other side of those bars—a moral that, sadly, still applies today.—Raven Snook

Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Lemon Andersen. Directed by Elise Thoron. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.


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