Theater Spotlight

George Byron Griffiths

Emigrant Theater; at the Guthrie Theater Dowling Studio through January 27

Tanya Barfield's yearning drama concerns itself with a long, dark night in the soul of math professor Lewis (David Eulus Wiles), whose wife has just left him after 25 years of marriage. The ostensible reason Lewis finds himself alone? His (white) wife has grown disenchanted with his distance and lack of authenticity, with matters coming to a head after he (an African American) refused to attend the Million Man March. Wiles sells the state of affairs handily in the early going, speaking in clipped, posh tones, expressing his bemusement directly to the audience with little in the way of emotion. Lest we, too, grow frustrated with this odd, desiccated character, he's soon set upon by three ghosts from his past (all played by Eric Avery). The first is Simon, Lewis's beloved great-grandfather, a former slave who tells the story of his mother being sold away from the plantation after she became infirm. The second is Rex, Lewis's brother who died from a drug overdose, who scorns Lewis's assimilation and generally exhorts him to keep it real. The third is Jesse, Simon's son, who recounts his unfair incarceration, and whose grisly fate eventually tips the story of Lewis's heritage into the tragic. Avery moves from character to character with facility, and lends a sweet singing voice to snippets of song that evoke the centuries of violence and oppression brimming beneath the surface. Lewis finally comes around to recounting a semi-meltdown in the classroom that has scuttled his career, the result of decades of slights and double standards he thought he had successfully tamped down, but which have instead hollowed out his personality. Director Jessica Finney maintains a taut pace but rarely turns the burner above a low simmer. Wiles, for his part, by the end allows a glance at the vulnerability and longing that underpins his character, though it's arguable that it's too little, too late. Still, this show unearths the ghosts of slavery and oppression, and Barfield's scenario does succeed in painting a seamless intergenerational portrait—along with making the case that the past must be paid its due. Like Lewis, though, at times the play's too restrained for its own good.

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