Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
All American Boys tells the story of a Black teenager, Rashad Butler, who after mistakenly being thought to be stealing a bag of chips at a corner store, is assaulted by a police officer who interprets Rashad's attempts to explain his innocence as defiance and, ultimately, resisting arrest. Rashad winds up in the hospital with a broken nose, internal bleeding, and misdemeanor charges. It is equally the story of Quinn Collins, a white student who attends the same high school as Rashad. Quinn saw the incident take place, horrified as Rashad was pummeled by Paul, the cop. This is especially disturbing because Paul is the older brother of one of Quinn's best friends and a teammate on the school basketball team, Guzzo. Guzzo's family–especially Paul–took Quinn under their wing after Quinn's father was killed while serving in Afghanistan. Quinn struggles with how to balance his loyalty to Paul with what he saw happen with his own eyes.
Stages Theatre Company, now in its 38th year and going strong, is a much heralded youth theater, based in suburban Hopkins, west of Minneapolis. Collaborating and mounting the show at the Capri was an inspired choice. The Capri is the last remaining theater in North Minneapolis, heart of the city's African American community. It reopened last year after a fabulous renovation turned it into a first-class performance space. The Capri is operated by Plymouth Christian Youth Services, a long-standing non-profit that delivers education, arts, and youth programming in North Minneapolis. To reach further toward an experience that tells both Quinn's and Rashad's stories with authenticity, the production is co-directed by Theo Langason, who is Black, and Cody R. Braudt, who is white.
As in the novel, the play shows both protagonists in the context of a complete life, including family, friends, teachers and coaches. For Rashad that includes: his supportive mother and his father, whose exacting standards seem impossible to satisfy; his older brother Spoony who, working at UPS, definitely has not satisfied their dad's standards; and Spoony's politically woke girlfriend, Berry. Rashad has a tight group of friends: Carlos Greene, Shannon Pushcart and English Jones (Berry's brother). English and Shannon are both on the basketball team. Rashad also is affected by a wise, straight-talking volunteer in the hospital gift shop.
Quinn's universe includes his hard-working mother, struggling to make ends meet since her husband was killed in action, and his younger brother Will, who often is left in Quill's care when their mom has to work a late shift. His closest friends are Dwyer and Guzzo, both basketball teammates, and he is forming a relationship with a girl named Jill. Then, of course, there is Guzzo's brother Paul. The two groups–those in Quinn's orbit and those in Rashad's–don't generally interact, except in the shared experience of the basketball team, with their coach constantly enjoining them to work together as one team.
Both Rashad and Quinn are presented as candidates for the sobriquet "All American Boy." Both are good students, basically well mannered, and have avoided getting in any trouble thus far in life. We see how Rashad's hopes and future chances can disappear in a flash, through no fault of his, other than for being a Black male teenager, and we note Rashad's instinct not to fight back, just to make the trouble go away. Quinn, on the other hand, chafes against the expectation that he play the "All American Boy," feeling that he can never live up to his father's heroic legacy, to be everything his mother needs him to be, and do the right thing in the face of huge conflicting interests. This dual-track narrative pivots from scene to scene, creating a clear image of how both imbedded racism and the pressure placed upon boys to "be a man" deal a double-blow upon our males, whether they be white, Black, or any other color.
Throughout the play, conversations among friends, between parents and children, and in classrooms are depicted with authenticity. When school officials try to contain the increasingly heated talk about the incident, a graffiti statement appears outside the school–"Rashad Is Absent Again Today"–that becomes a rallying cry for those outraged both by what happened to Rashad and attempts to dismiss it. The play's conclusion does not soft-pedal the difficulties that make progress halting, but does leave the audience with a measure of hope and a full heart, ready to continue the work of making a difference.
The cast of (mostly) youthful actors, does a fine job bringing these many characters to life, with Miles Johnson as Rashad and Jaden Corniea as Quinn both outstanding in those two demanding roles. Roy Richardson Jr. is impressive as Spoony, rightfully agitated over the injustice done to his kid brother, well balanced by Joh Easley as Cherry, with an equal sense of the injustice but able to maintain a calmer demeanor in her response.
Jamila Joiner as Rashad's mother and Danté Pirtle as his father both convey the very different, but equally fraught responses to Rashad's situation. Pirtle especially shows the great pain it brings his character to reveal a dark secret to his son. Other noteworthy performances are given by Jack Mintz as Guzzo, Edric Duffy as English Jones, Kim Kivens as Quinn's mother, Michael Venske as Paul, and Luca La Hoz Calassara as Carlos.
The numerous named characters in addition to three ensemble members often, throughout the play, serve as a chorus, narrating plot points or reacting to developments on stage. At other times Rashad narrates. These might have become overly "stagy" devices, but are handled deftly by the co-directors, as are the transitions between scenes and the shift of focus from Rashad to Quinn and back again.
Joe Stanley designed a clever set that transforms from one scene to another with ease, while Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes serve each character well. The production benefits greatly from Grant E. Merges' lighting design. At times, between scenes, spotlights abruptly go on and off, each time in different colors, creating a sense of these young people's lives being the prey in a misguided manhunt, searchlights flashing on to catch them in the act of ... something.
Sound designers Peter Morrow and Maje Adams provide booms along with those flashes, underscoring the effect, and overall sound elements are well conceived. It should be noted, though, that several of the actors were difficult to hear at the performance I attended, speaking rather softly on stage. Whether these actors merely need to increase volume, or additional amplification is needed, I did regret not being able to catch every word of this compelling play. Hopefully, this has been addressed since opening night.
While All American Boys is categorized as "young adult" literature, both the novel and the play deal substantively with serious issues that run long and deep through society. Both are crafted with a level of sophistication that can be appreciated by any adult reader or theatergoer. While the play pares down some plot points from the novel to attain a streamlined eighty-minute run time, it is a fully formed play and makes its points eloquently and forcefully. By joining forces, All American Boys, Stages and the Capri have brought forth an important, wonderfully realized work that should be seen by high school students, their parents and grandparents, their teachers, and just about anybody else.
All American Boys, a co-production of Stages Theatre Company and the Capri Theater, runs through May 22, 2022, at the Capri Theater, 2027 West Broadway, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Adults - $19.00, Children and Seniors - $17.00. For more information and tickets call 952-979-1111 or go to stagestheatre.org. For information about the Capri Theater go to thecapri.org.
Playwrights: Jody Drezner Alperin and Vicky Finney, based on the book by Jason Reynolds and Brendon Kiely; Directors: Theo Langason and Cody R. Braudt; Set Design: Joe Stanley; Costume and Make-up Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Composer and Sound Design: Peter Morrow and Maje Adams; Properties Design: Laura Wilhelm Dramaturg: Jane Peña; Technical Director: Jim Hibbeler; Stage Manager: Emily Sullivan; Assistant Stage Manager: Joya Horne; Production Manager: Melanie Salmon-Peterson.
Cast: Calli Argent (Jill), John Clifton (Dwyer), Peter Colburn (Coach, clerk), Jaden Corniea (Quinn), Edric Duffy (English Jones). Joh Easley (Berry), Becca Hart (Ms. Tracy, Katie Lansing), Grant Hudson (Shannon Pushcart), Miles Johnson (Rashad), Jamila Joiner (Mom), Kim Kivens (Ma), Luca La Hoz Calassara (Carlos), Apollonia Leider (Will), J.C Lippold (news reporter), Jack Mintz (Guzzo), Danté Pirtle (Dad), Livv Rankin (chorus), Roy Richardson Jr. (Spoony), Charles Rush-Reese (chorus), Michael Venske (Paul), Jeanette Warner (Mrs. Fitzgerald).