Boy X Man

By Ed Bullins
Directed by Mort Kaplan
Centastage At the Boston Center for the Arts Through November 23rd

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The season opener for the new-play specialists at Centastage is "Boy X Man", which is the seventh drama in Ed Bullins' ongoing chronicle of the Black man in America. Bullins, who was one of the defining writers in the Greenwich Village Theatre Renaissance of the late sixties, has moved to Boston and taken up a professorship at Northeastern University, inspiring local writers with a series of new play readings and workshops, along with this Centastage production.

"Boy X Man" is a memory play. It begins when the narrator, Ernie (Jeff Garlin) comes back to Philadelphia to attend his mother's funeral. Her death came just one year after the death of her "friend" Will (Lonnie Farmer). Will was the man his mother lived with most of her life, the man who was a father-substitute for Ernie when he was growing up. Ernie tells the audience that he was raised by the blues, that he remembers hearing the blues from his crib -- and he thinks he remembers the violent man (Michael Nurse) who engendered him, and lived with them until his mother Brenda (Patrice Jabouin) got away from his father's abuse by finding a job as a dancer in a honkytonk club.

Brenda and her sisters were poor, and on their own because their hardworking mother died; but they know about the Harlem Renaissance and jazz, and the New Negro, and they are determined not just to survive but to prevail. In a flashback Brenda brings Will home with her during a break from her dancing at the club, and he discovers that she leaves her son there alone during her working hours -- her little "E" is such a good baby. Will says that he likes babies, and that he will stay with baby Ernie until Brenda comes home -- and that he'll give Brenda his wallet, as a symbol of the trust between them.

Brenda settles down with Will, living as if they were married. Will is a good provider, though he has to work at a series of menial jobs. Brenda had wanted to get an education and become a nurse before her mother's death made it necessary for her to drop out of school, and now she is torn between gratitude for what Will is giving her and resentment because Will isn't ambitious enough to provide the kind of life she wants for herself and her son. Ernie is to do better. He'll be a leader: "I didn't raise you to be just anybody", is how Brenda scolds her son at one point. Jabouin gives full weight to each of the conflicting impulses that flow through Brenda, and she presents a formidable obstacle for any son to struggle against.

Brenda's sisters are part of young Ernie's world, and they too are sketched in vividly. The characters do double duty: besides supplying Ernie with a functioning family, their histories fill in historical background. It is amazing how the acting rounds out Bullins' sketches and absorbs the exposition into characterization. Barb (Diana Lee Benson) works multiple jobs to raise her kids and each of those jobs -- beautician, domestic, factory worker -- manages to represent the opportunities opened to or denied African-Americans at a specific time in U.S. history while also giving the actress the chance to express another aspect of Barb's personality. Benson gets every bit of comic mileage out of her tart lines and also performs a knock-out blues number and a sort-of striptease; all without losing her credibility.

Barb is guided by her memory of their saintly mother, and by the church. Still, she is grateful when Will's brother Jim starts coming around and helping out, even after she learns Jim has a wife and another family elsewhere. Barb likes to party, but she has a big heart, and sometimes Ernie is sent to stay with Aunt Barbara and his cousins for months at a time. There is a wrenching moment when little Ernie is with his cousins and sees Brenda coming up the walk and all of the kids, including Ernie, greet her as "Aunt Brenda. She slaps her son, hard. He's not to forget who his Mama is, ever.

Ernie in these boyhood scenes is played by twentish Richard Auguste, with a kind of wide-eyed and innocent receptivity. Auguste has a presence, but Bullins gives him almost nothing to do. His little Ernie takes it all in, all the trials and quarrels and aspirations: but neither the child's scenes nor the grown-up Ernie's narration reveal what the character makes of all this, or what it has made of him.

The third sister, Sophia, the wild one who gets stoned and hooks up with dangerous men who live outside the law, is played by Comika Griffin. Griffin is a fascinating figure, slinking and smirking, offering glimpses of a complex character, but even less than blank little Ernie is fascinating Sophia connected to the main action of the play. Once, it is hinted that Sophia has been sexually involved with Brenda's Will, but whether it really happened or what difference it would have made if it did happen is left unexplored.

Now, all three sisters are written as distinct individuals, and all three actresses have been encouraged by director Mort Kaplan to make strong choices to highlight their individuality. Add to this the power and magnetism that these particular performers bring to the roles, and the emotional depth that they are able to bring into focus within the space of a line or a gesture -- this cast delivers real tears, and sighs that speak worlds of pain-- and the peculiarly undramatic form of the play itself is thrown into relief. Certainly these strong characters in their agonies and ecstasies must have had an effect on little Ernie as he was growing up -- and to some extent each of them must have had some opinion about whether the other two were a good or bad influence on the boy. Which of their attitudes and expectations did little Ernie try to incorporate in his tentative definition of manhood, and what does the older, presumably wiser, Ernie, who is telling the story, think about that now?

At the end of the play, the narrator Ernie, who left home to go into the army, and who then got some education, married and had children and divorced, embraces his own younger self. This reconciliation should be the resolution: Boy Times Man equals....?? But the terms of that equation haven't ever been defined.

There are traces of another possible play here, one in which the central relationship, the one to be explored and accepted, is that between Ernie and Will. Certainly Will himself is worth exploring. Lonnie Farmer gives the man such dignity, such reserves of passion and tenderness and competence, that when late in the play the usually reticent Will describes his experience in the army in World War II-- the courage and pride that earned him sergeant stripes and a Purple Heart; the disillusion and moral collapse that set in as the war made the full extent of man's inhumanity evident to him -- you can't help wishing that more of Will's life had made it into the script. Still, what IS in the script is enough to make you want to see what's in those other six Bullins plays.