They've Got Game
Smartly directed, honestly acted and imaginatively written, HorseChart Theatre Company's production of O.T. takes on prickly issues with the kind of spunky tenacity that one expects from a group of theatrical renegades.
Clay Nichols's drama, which is being presented at the Denver Civic Theatre as part of HorseChart's participation in the National New Play Network, also proves one of the troupe's best efforts since a taut True West and an imaginative Disturbed by the Wind graced local stages a couple of seasons back. Although the world-premiere show has some troublesome kinks common to new works, director Brett Aune's straightahead approach makes for a compelling evening.
Following a terse prologue that foreshadows the play's underlying concerns, the performance begins with a group of good old boys clowning around at a pick-up basketball game in Dallas, Texas. Weaving snide comments with grunted compliments, the half-dozen or so thirtysomethings toss insults at each other as easily as they exchange behind-the-back passes. The most sarcastic remarks, however, are reserved for a guy named Tres (pronounced "Trace"), a former high school sports hero who's settled down with his girlfriend and participates in an unnamed social program that gives a leg up to inner-city youth. Naturally, his pals take every opportunity to deride him for his devotion to domestic affairs and for his do-gooding ways, which, we learn, haven't always been in Tres's philosophical playbook.
As the drama unfolds in a series of flashback-style scenes mixed with current happenings, Aune and the actors hit upon several disquieting questions about the embedded attitudes that give rise to prejudice and racism.
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During dinner at a local hangout, for instance, two couples chat about the time one of their acquaintances paid a local musician to underscore a certain point during the wee hours of the morning. In the middle of laughing at said friend's exploits, one character casually muses, "What, exactly, do you have to pay to get a black guy to play the violin at 4 a.m.?" A couple of scenes later, another character nonchalantly says of a pal, "We're just glad he's dating white girls again." Then we're treated to a story about the time one young man went to a basketball game where there were "lots of black faces in the crowd" -- a situation he describes as resembling a scene from the movie Zulu.
So by the time Tres decides to invite his young African-American friend from the inner-city youth program to watch a football game with the rest of the guys, it comes as absolutely no surprise that one of Tres's pals would scream "Nigger!" at one of the rival team's players -- and quickly sputter that using the word doesn't mean anything because "they all call each other that." Which prompts the black youth to retort, "No, it don't mean nothin' comin' from a lardass motherfucker like you." And in a heartbeat, the multicultural gathering, if it ever was one to begin with, is clearly over.
Despite the touchy subject matter and some nagging questions about each character's deeper motives, the play works well because dramatist Nichols has taken pains to reveal each issue's complexities and ambiguities. Make a quick assumption about the drunken football fan's remarks or the diners' casual conversation, for example, and you're later forced to question whether those assumptions, however reasonable they seem, might possibly reveal an unspoken prejudice about Southerners (or, as they all call each other, rednecks). Try, on the other hand, to skirt the debate by intellectualizing racism's root causes and you'll find yourself feeling mighty uncomfortable when Tres and Dwell, a streetwise narrator who occasionally interacts with the principal characters, face off in a game of one-on-one that portends life-or-death consequences. In the end, Nichols seems to say, it isn't simply enough to use the right words or cop a socially acceptable attitude; changing the way we feel about others is the only way to deal with the problems at hand.
In addition to keeping a steady hand on the director's helm (and playing a small role with ease), Aune elicits several fine performances. Chris Reid deserves a place at the top of the roster for his solid turn as the conflicted Tres. No stranger to plays with touchy themes (earlier this season, he appeared in works about youth violence and abortion as well as a fable that featured a gay Christ-like character), Reid once again demonstrates his ability to navigate a character's emotional extremes without straying too far from his human center. As his ambivalent protegé Pip, Quatis Tarkington is at once endearing and distant, an easygoing youth with aspirations to a better life but wary of being regarded by Tres as "an experiment." David Pinckney is a powerful, smoldering presence as Dwell, a character who's in need of further development: Is he a spiritual force or a flesh-and-blood entity? Pinckney's rich portrait contains enough of each to make a case for both, which would lend the play even more intrigue. As Tres's disillusioned fiancée, Kimberly Payetta makes the most of an underwritten part, as does Michelle Norman, who plays her double-dating sidekick, Dianne. (Interestingly enough, the playwright seems to suggest here and there that male chauvinism is akin to racism; maybe more emphasis on the two female characters would allow that idea to evolve.) And Stephen Cosgrove, Don Murphy, J.K. Palmer and Donald Ryan shine/fester as a quartet of fickle friends.
All things considered, Nichols has fashioned a play that's worth considering, worth revamping, worth broadening and mounting again. And the simple setting of a lone backboard-and-hoop and a black wall artfully stenciled with chain-link patterns (fashioned by scenic painter Daniel Lowenstein) is pleasantly functional. Best of all, it's refreshing to see HorseChart, which has had its difficulties this past season, perform at a level that's nearer the top of its game.
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