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Separate and Equal

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 9, 2018

Adrian Baidoo and Ross Birdsong
Photo by Jeff Hanson

The septic wound of legally sanctioned racial segregation in the U.S. remains very much a living memory for anyone who was around prior to its painfully slow dissolution starting in the mid-1950s. Inspired by narratives from an oral history project about the Jim Crow era, playwright Seth Panitch has written Separate and Equal, opening today at 59E59 Theaters in a production that combines realism with expressionism into a stew of dramatic and kinetic tension.

The year is 1951, three years before the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the very concept of racial separation, an embedded reality in Birmingham, Alabama where the play takes place, was a violation of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. But in Separate and Equal, the only court that matters is the basketball court, where six high school students, three of them black and three of them white, meet up one day.

The black teenagers (Adrian Baidoo, Edwin Brown III, and James Holloway), who show up first, have already been warned by the local police to steer clear; their designated time on the court is restricted to after church on Sundays. Yet here they are on a week day, horsing around and practicing layups when they are confronted by their white peers (Ross Birdsong, Steven Bono Jr., and Dylan Guy Davis).

After some initial smirking and chest thumping, the white boys agree to split the court in two so both groups can play. Before you know it, however, the two sides are pitted against each other, and, eventually, they rearrange themselves into two integrated teams. But don't think for one moment that this is some great kumbaya breakthrough. The teens are very much aware of their place in the rigidly prescribed social order, and this deeply imbued understanding affects every one of their interactions.

To convey the wound-up tension, the basketball game gradually takes on the form of a modern dance piece, played out through a series of well-executed movements choreographed by Lawrence M. Jackson, with original music by Tom Wolfe. The whole thing has the feel of a Sharks versus Jets confrontational dance out of West Side Story. And while you may catch a glimpse into a more hopeful future when the most rigid rules of segregation will be split apart, you also get a strong sense that all hell could break loose at any moment. There is no actual basketball in play, but Matthew Reynolds' projections keep you apprised of the action around the hoops, as well as disconcerting images of the "separate but equal" water fountains for use by the black and white players.

While the interactions among the young men are front and center of the production, the contextual weight of history falls to the adults who come in and out of the scene. If there is a place in which the 85-minute play falls short, it is with its depiction of the generation of the boys' parents. The parallel lives of two of the mothers, the black maid Viola (Pamela Afesi) and "Miss Annabelle" (Barbra Wengerd), the embittered white woman she works for, provide some of the most intriguing though frustratingly underdeveloped moments offered by the playwright, who also directs. There are some wonderful choreographed moves featuring the women that provide a glimpse into their intersecting lives and that leaves a lingering impression, but with too many unanswered questions.

The adult men are even more clich├ęd in the way they are presented. There is Two Snakes (Will Badgett), whose obsequiousness towards the white policemen (Ted Barton and Jeremy Cox) makes him an object of ridicule; even one of the black players refers to him as "Stepin Fetchit." Yet he is always on hand to stand between the boys and a severe beating, especially by Mr. Barton's tough cop character, whose last name is, assuredly not coincidentally, the same as that of the notorious Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor. Finally, there is the father of one of the white boys, a pro-civil rights lawyer called Mr. Finch (also played by Mr. Barton), a name that should be recognizable to anyone familiar with Harper Lee's novel "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Truthfully, the sketchy portrayal of the adult characters is problematic and makes the play feel unfinished. Nevertheless, the playwright is to be commended for the inventive use of a basketball game as a metaphor for the troubled history being depicted and for bringing together the themes of age-cohort camaraderie, resentment, potentially violent competitiveness, and even a dash of hope. There is enough inventiveness here so that, despite its shortcomings, Separate and Equal is a worthy entry in the ongoing examination of race relations in America.

Separate and Equal
Through September 30
59E59 Theaters - Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral