The current black theater production at the Paul Robeson Center is an effective, generally first-class staging of Richard Wesley's drama, "The Mighty Gents," seen last March at the Kennedy Center.
Wesley brings a classical form and comment to what may seem a familiar tale of street gangs. It is now 10 years since "The Mighty Gents" battled against other gangs in the slums of Newark. These "boys" have learned nothing, dreaming only of someday making a big "hit". They get their chance when they gang up on an old enemy from their youthful prime.
Here Wesley, author of such popular films as "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Let's Do It Again," shows his deeper purpose. Zeke, a street derelict who scrounges through trash for booze and is scorned by the overage juveniles, will not be denied his humanity. It is Zeke, the mocked bum, who shouts: "I'm here, still here and I'm not going away." An Zeke turns the tables.
This character and the play's lean, classical form distinguish the melodrama and turn Wesley's play into a statement about the timelss, neglected, forgotten people who give point to the action. Wesley has used the old enemy as comment on "The American Dream," a pusher and pimp who seems to have it made with fine clothes, cars and cash.
By this Wesley is not saying that all who turn the dream into at least a semblance of reality are crooks, thieves and murderers. It is this situation, that of the street gangs, which arouses him. By creating Zeke's role into both commentator and deus exmachina, he achieves a richly actable role.
Mike Howell's performance as Zeke is strong indeed, especially well vocied and impaginatively acted. Frank Bullard, who has played often at Arena, the Folger and the New Playwrights, is clearly defined as Frankie, the gang leader who cannot grow up. I admired Steve Hinnant, as Tiny, the slightest of the gang, a group completed by Cedric Harris and Morton Brooks.
While I did not see the original Off Broadway version, which led to the Kennedy Center and Broadway productions, director Jay Williams has guided this simple, more intimate one, with aware dignity, achieving a sense of ensemble. As the lone female, Frankie's girl, Verna Haywood shows inexperience through poor vocal projection. This young actress may feel her role, but does not not project it.
Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays and William's effort to create a black theater center deserves vastly more support than it's been getting. People talk fo the city's need for black theater. William is supplying this on an honorable level at 1632 O St. NW, but where are the audiences?