Hurt people hurt people: a cliché, yes, but one that helps understand many of the characters in Steven A. Butler, Jr.’s Chocolate Covered Ants, revived in Restoration Stage’s gorgeous new home in THEARC Black Box Theater. The sources of their hurt are many, above all a society that regards them with a toxic combination of fear, suspicion, and contempt. In his program note, the playwright comments that “…as far back as our history books conveniently choose to go, the Black man has been ridiculed and picked apart. The auction block hasn’t disappeared. It has only gotten bigger.”
In a play the principal subject of which is Black men, it is a Black woman who is the fulcrum of the action. Dr. Adrienne Taylor (Suli Myrie), a social worker and professor of mental health, is frustrated in her quest for professional respect and funding, desperately ambitious, manipulative, and profoundly unethical, complete with a hidden agenda. She has assembled a quartet of young men as interview subjects for a study of the effects of Black men on Black women. She is angry at her father (Tillmon Figgs) who, as she sees it, allowed her mother to die while preparing a successful book about her depression; angry at her ex-husband; angry at what she sees in the treatment of Black women by her university, society in general, and Black men in particular. Myrie’s characterization is riveting, as she veers from professional detachment to empathy to ruthless determination to excruciating pain, all manifest in her body and voice.
The quality of physical acting throughout the production is extraordinary. MarQuis Fair’s Tyrone Jackson, a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, expresses his confined energy in a flurry of tics. Flex (Marlon Russ), a musical celebrity charged with statutory rape, displays loose, fluid, sexually presentational body language. Jayson Deeds (Miles Folley), a biracial cop in a nearly all-white town, is straight up-and-down and controlled, carrying his dignity carefully, as though afraid of breaking it. AJ McCormick (Austin T. Farrow), an academically successful homosexual man (not “gay,” he explains, since that implies happiness), is all tightness, arms often folded, body turned in on itself.
Each has suffered from the absence of a father in his life. Each has suffered pain inflicted by others. The central portion of the show consists of a series of scenes in which, one after another, Adrienne interviews the four young men, in the style though not in the spirit of therapy. Each man has a monologue explaining the sources of his distress, ending the scene with a soliloquy expressing his deepest feelings and torment, enabling the audience to hear and understand what it would otherwise not learn of the inner life of an emotionally taciturn character (c.f., the adult Chiron in Moonlight).
These monologues and soliloquies are the heart of Butler’s script, and the writing is brilliant, beautiful, touching, sometimes harrowing. It would be fair to call them spoken arias. Particularly memorable are Flex’s remembrance of being sexually molested as a 10-year old; AJ’s declaration that the most masculine thing a man can do is to cry; and Jayson’s plea that he be made over the right way this time, as white, wishing to erase blackness.
Two other important characters become involved. Michelle Pitts (Wilma Lynn Horton), Adrienne’s young research assistant, is the sanest and most soundly grounded of the characters, taking no guff from anyone, including her class-conscious boss, and providing much of the humor in the show. Alan (Charles W. Harris, Jr.), an itinerant Greyhound bus driver who enters in a key second act role that catalyzes the final plot development, is a casually irresponsible sort, though there is pain and loss in his history too. As with all the cast, the detail and specificity of these two performances are a pleasure to watch.
If there is a weakness in the script, it is the role of the Ant Queen (Kandace Foreman). Embodying in brief scenes the men’s perhaps distorted memories of women in their pasts, the Ant Queen can be a distraction, sometimes creating titters of laughter that upstage another character’s serious thoughts in a monologue. Given that Adrienne is already effectively the villain of the piece (albeit an understandable and arguably tragic one), adding these somewhat negatively cartoonish female snippets serves to underline the fraught gender dynamics with which the playwright is grappling.
In Restoration’s first performance in this space, the technical side of the production shines. Harlan Penn creates a well-appointed, realistic three-area set, centered on Adrienne’s interview room. Jerry M. Dale Jr.’s lighting design is particularly strong on the use of specials downstage, focusing on actors delivering their monologues and soliloquies. Zukeh Freeman coordinates a varied, visually pleasing, and character-appropriate series of costumes for the actors. Projections of the Chicago skyline serve as an effective backdrop. Director Courtney Baker-Oliver, in addition to the fine character work on which he collaborated with the actors, succeeds in maintaining interest over the Long Day’s Journey Into Night length of the production.
Kelvin Hemsley Jr.’s afterword in the program asks “Why do I feel like a chocolate covered ant, placed on a farm to be shaken and confused?…I know I am not perfect nor will I ever be, but until you loosen me from these mental shackles our young men will grow believing that a chocolate covered ant is all they will ever be.” There’s a lot to think about in this admirable production, and THEARC’s facility is readily accessible (with good parking, even) from throughout the DMV. Restoration deserves full houses for this top-notch piece of theater on a crucially important subject.
Running Time: Three hours, including one 10-minute intermission.
Chocolate Covered Ants, presented by Restoration Stage, runs through October 28, 2018, at THEARC Black Box Theater, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-714-0646 or go online.
Read my colleague John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column about the show.