Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Lambs to Slaughter

Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - June 19, 2022

Adiagha Faizah and Terayle Hill
Photo by Jonathan Slaff
The centerpiece of Romello Huins's set design for Lambs to Slaughter, Khalil Kain's new play presented by the Negro Ensemble Company at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is a large, circular wall clock. The hands are resolutely frozen at 9:30–or is that 5:45? After all, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between the big hand and the little one. Accordingly, time plays cruel tricks on the characters, who are coping with the murder of a young African American man. At various points, they want to run away from time, move backward within it, and find comfort in its inevitability and orderliness. In any case, there seems to be no relief from, as one character describes, "Pain so great that it would stop time."

That pain is articulated by Joan (Adiagha Faizah), whose older son Lonny was recently shot and killed by an unknown assailant. The murder is under investigation, but Joan does not trust the police who are pursuing the case, for as she asks, "How we know they wasn't the ones shot him?" As a result, she finds it very difficult to leave her apartment, and she is consumed with fear that her younger son, high-school student Emmett (Terayle Hill), will be the next victim of a society that makes young Black men perpetual moving targets.

Emmett is also having difficulty dealing with his half-brother's death, and as much as possible he stays away from the apartment because Lonny's presence is a constant reminder of his loss. He finds solace, though, with the family's upstairs neighbor Athena (Shaquila Gooden), who is like a sister to Joan.

Paul (Kain), Joan's former lover and Lonny's father, has recently re-entered the picture. An ex-con, Paul has developed a successful moving business, and he offers the potential for stability and comfort for Joan and paternal guidance to Emmett. In a violent and hate-filled world, the love of a family, the play suggests, is the most durable and protective barrier.

Directed by Reginald L. Douglas, Lambs to Slaughter is described as "a poetry infused play." Structurally, the dramatic scenes are interspersed with and punctuated by slam poetry, rap songs, and percussive jazz-inflected passages. The production includes a four-piece band directed by Keith Edward Johnston (and Julian Evans designed the sound), and periodically Paul and Emmett, wielding hand mics like they were weapons, step out of the world of the play to comment upon and lyrically reflect on the real-life and existential issues at stake.

This is a highly ambitious conceit, but the overall effect is ultimately more frustrating than it is fascinating. First, the verse is at odds with the theatrical realism, and the poetic interludes come at the expense of in-depth character development. Additionally, for a play that concerns itself with time, the continuing and repetitive shifts from conversational narrative to rhythmic narration (indicated by John D. Alexander's sudden lighting changes) drastically affect the show's pacing. A good part of the play, therefore, lacks forward momentum, and it seems to be running in place until the culminating moments in which the final revelation produces a collective "didn't see that one coming" (and not in a good way) response. Indeed, the play would benefit from finding ways to make the book scenes more lyrical and the poetic riffs more character-driven.

The performances, however, are uniformly strong. Faizah is heartbreakingly good as the mourning mother, and she is well matched by Kain, who is a compassionate and steely Paul. Gooden has less to do than the other actors, but as the sympathetic neighbor, she provides a comforting presence for the grieving family.

As the alternately conflicted young man and the assured spoken-word artist, Hill is the production's standout. His program bio states that this is his "first time ever performing onstage in the Theater world, but certainly not his last!" Based on the excellent performance here, one hopes that proves true.

The Negro Ensemble has a long history of nurturing risk-taking playwrights. Lambs to Slaughter may need more time to gestate, but Khalil Kain's voice is well worth waiting for.

Lambs to Slaughter
Through July 3, 2022
The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: