Everything Is Preachy Keen In 'Resurrection'

Jeffery V. Thompson, left, as the Bishop and Che Ayende as Dre in Daniel Beaty's poetic new play at Arena Stage.
Jeffery V. Thompson, left, as the Bishop and Che Ayende as Dre in Daniel Beaty's poetic new play at Arena Stage. (By Scott Suchman -- Arena Stage)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In "Resurrection," Daniel Beaty's perky new poetry slam of a play about the hardness and softness of life for African American men, a 10-year-old science wiz spends hours with his chemistry set, trying to perfect a formula for the world's best herbal iced tea.

The restorative effects of this beverage have little to do, however, with a cool respite from the stresses of the day. No, young Eric's goal has further-reaching implications: "My life's mission," he tells us in all sincerity, "is to find a cure for the aching hearts of black folks."

The work that Eric, played by Thuliso Dingwall, has cut out for himself happens to run a parallel course to that of the dramatist, who in this uber-earnest Arena Stage world premiere reveals a noble ambition: conveying an upbeat image of ordinary black men caught up in ordinary American struggles over finances, sexual prejudice and illness. They're churchmen and marketing executives, health food store owners and college students, young men and older men on admirable quests to improve the world for their families and themselves.

If you hold to Beaty's notion that this is an absolute good, casting in a positive light a group that does not get a fair share of this kind of treatment in the media -- or for that matter, in the theater -- then the 90 or so minutes of "Resurrection" will pass as a blood-stoking act of affirmation.

But even if you applaud the unassailable intentions, the play itself still comes across as simplistic and leaning too heavily on a motivational speaker's style of public morale-building. A stage work that demands an audience lock arms in solidarity with its characters doesn't leave the spectator much space for skeptical reflection. Serious drama incites an argument with an audience; soapbox drama merely talks at you.

"Resurrection" practices a lot of the latter. The play's style -- with actors addressing us directly, as if confiding their secret hopes and foibles to the gaggle of Dr. Phils beyond the footlights -- heightens the evening's confessional tone. Although at times Beaty chronicles misunderstandings among the interconnected characters, much of the narrative is devoted to touchy-feely aphorisms such as "I need to know how to bear my rage when anger steals my breath," or "I need to know how to stop sorrow from choking unborn possibility."

Beaty's writing evinces lyrical power, but the taste it leaves on this occasion tends to be a bit saccharine. Perhaps expectations for something more exciting were raised last year, by the fiercely appealing personality Beaty brought to the characters he embodied at Arena in his one-man play, "Emergence-See!" -- a work that looks at the legacy of black suffering and exhorts the community to keep faith with the past.

For his new work, energetically staged in Arena's temporary Crystal City space by Oz Scott, Beaty splits his inspirational voice six ways, parceling it out to actors playing six male characters across a generational spectrum, their ages running in 10-year increments from 10 to 60. The setting seems to be Harlem -- it's mentioned at least once, and the stonework of set designer G.W. Mercier's nifty backdrop gives an impression of the brownstone buildings of that neighborhood.

Only the 50-year-old, portrayed by the genial Michael Genet, is identified by last name: Mr. Rogers. (Get it?) He runs a shop that sells medicinal herbs, which is failing because he can't persuade his potential customers to shift away from heart-clogging soul food. Eric is his son and 30-year-old Dre (Che Ayende) is his clerk, a reformed heroin dealer making the transition to upstanding father and citizen.

In the manner of a play-by-numbers, each character is assigned a central problem. Dre has infected his pregnant girlfriend with HIV. Isaac (Alvin Keith), a 40-year-old Harvard MBA, can't bring himself to confide a key facet of his private life to his 60-year-old minister-father, called simply the Bishop (Jeffery V. Thompson), who himself suffers from an eating disorder. Twenty-year-old Twon (Turron Kofi Alleyne), meanwhile, is headed to Morehouse College, but first must deal with the separation anxiety that's accumulated in his heavy-duty relationship with a comely young woman.

Beaty compels us to accept these men as thoughtful and complex, though his insistence on putting them on symbolically ornate pedestals prevents them from moving us as deeply as they might. The actors are all attractive and accomplished, and they speak the poetry with verve, even when "Resurrection" sounds as if it is mimicking the purple wholesomeness of a get-well card.

Resurrection, by Daniel Beaty. Directed by Oz Scott. Lighting, Victor En Yu Tan; sound, Tim Thompson; composer, Daniel Bernard Roumain; musical stylist, Elan Vytal a.k.a. DJ Scientific; movement consultant, Kevin Malone. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 5 at Arena Stage in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Call 202-488-3300 or visit

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