Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Nominated for an Outer Critics Circle award for Outstanding New Play, The Light turns a fan's celebrity "parasocial relationship"–with a misogynistic (fictional) rap star–into the agonized curses of two mortals against an old world deity. Kashif, the rapper spoken of but never seen in The Light, seems to be a perfectly modern and profane kind of god–and suddenly, regrettably, a figure who now controls both their fates. Why isn't this a musical? And rap gets to play the villain. (Note to self, this should not be exciting to an older white person.)
Eric J. Conners plays Rashad, a Chicago firefighter, and Alicia Revé Like is Genesis (Gen), a school principal, and it's the night he intends to propose marriage to her. Both actors show great ease and honesty with a charming love story. Mr. Conners is perfect as a heroic roughneck, and Ms. Like manages the tonal change in the play easily, but with a hint of the grinding and gnashing of gears turning silently in her head. In the fashion of great modern theater, unseen forces conspire to destroy their life together. And because the characters have become so affecting, tragedy becomes more plausible as their many good-hearted compromises are counted up, one by one, till they amount to a very high burden.
Gen and Rashad should have had a lovely middle-class future together, one sighs, halfway into the story. Then, at that moment, two theatrical genres collide, in the form of a slow-rising argument. We learn that Rashad is a big fan of the fictionalized rapper Kashif, and also that Genesis has (previously) firmly demanded that Kashif's music be deleted from her boyfriend's phone. Relationship energies become irreconcilable, miles beyond the original conflict.
And on this all-important night, he has pulled strings to obtain tickets for them both, to an all-star concert featuring their favorite female singer, but at an event (in fact) staged to honor Kashif himself. Simple enough, but even in the most modern Black America, the mortal power of (what starts out as) her feminine fable, paired with the lighthearted nature of his embattled male whimsey, becomes far less playful in the sudden high drama.
All their prior commitments swarm like yellow jackets, and snuff-out about 50% of the previous glib dialog, as the final speeches and desperation scorch the stage. Think of Maria Callas as Medea, and you can easily imagine this play taking the next few steps into a grand opera. After starting out as light jazz. Mr. Conners becomes the stampeded male, though Ms. Like, discovering the fiery power of her own truth, is still irresistible in her role, with or without music.
There are first-rate rhetorical frameworks, connecting the recent congressional hearings and emergent scandal surrounding U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, resonating along with the disbelief surrounding Gen's own story of rape in The Light. (The title refers to some imaginary location, a point of not being ashamed in a fallen world.) And there's a lot of beautifully written discussion (interspersed through it all) regarding the struggle to escape the seemingly fine line between a happy life and a tragic one for Black families in America.
People of any race may dourly imagine their lives to be simple and dull by comparison, till we study the conflicts along another person's life-path. These, too, are great debates. And all of that, the anguished stories of just getting by and the anguish of a bitterly failed relationship, is laid out on stage with regular glimmers of humor. And then the beautiful, dangerous similarities, between us all, suddenly abound.
The Light continues through February 26, 2023, at The St. Louis Black Repertory Company, in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, down the hall from the Edison Theatre, on the campus of Washington University, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis MO. For more information please visit www.theblackrep.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Hands of the United States