The torments of an immigrant fighting assimilation in a new world have long been a rich lode of literary and theatrical material. "Eden," the current offering of The Rep Inc., taps into this vein with a new twist by looking at the conflict between West Indian immigrants and American blacks, brothers in skin color but not in culture.
Steve Carter, a director, designer and playwright with the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, wrote "Eden" as part of a Caribbean trilogy that includes "Nevis Mountain Dew" and "Dame Lorraine." Set in 1927 in a tenement on West 63rd Street in Manhattan, the play focuses on the character of Joseph Barton, a proud, tyrannical adherent of Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement.
Barton moved his family to New York to participate in what he expected would be a great groundswell of support for Garvey and his ideas. Instead he finds himself at odds with the American blacks he had hoped to liberate, disgusted by their indifference and what he sees as a lack of pride and backbone. He determines to isolate his own wife and four children to preserve their "purity"; of course, they rebel, and their conflicts with him provide the structure of the play.
One daughter falls in love with a neighbor, an American. By his violent retribution, her father shows that he has no intention of mellowing. His imperiousness, his cruelty, his demands and his expectations for his children are both horrifying and admirable; he wants them to be the best they can, to attain power through knowledge, to "hold" themselves well, but at the expense of kindness, friendship and fun. "The power of your brain will get you home to Africa, and there you will be masters," he tells his two young sons.
Toward the end of the play the violence that he provokes with his harshness comes back to him in a particularly cruel way. Once he is silenced, the rebellion in his shocked family is staunched; the love affair between the daughter and the neighbor clearly headed for an unhappy marriage.
The play has enormous dramatic potential, which in this production has veered too often into melodramatic results. Director Carole W. Singleton seems to have encouraged her cast to pull out all the stops; although they are convincing, their broad strokes at times threaten the delicate values of the play. In the scene where Barton describes his hopes and plans to his two sons, for example, the boys--otherwise capable young actors--play it for laughs, giving what should be a powerfully moving moment an overtone of situation comedy. As Barton, Luzern Washington is a tall, intimidating tree of a man--but again, all bigness and no subtlety.
As the youngest son, Solomon, Willy Rowel shows remarkable range and sensitivity, particularly for a young actor. Everyone has good moments, and there is a clear sense of ensemble that serves the play well. Jaye Stewart's set is a jewel, an evocative living room filled with the carefully chosen possessions of people who don't have many.
EDEN, by Steve Carter; produced by Carolyn Smith and Lyn Dyson; directed by Carole W. Singleton; designed by Jaye Stewart; lights by William Pettus Jr.; sound by Benni Singleton. With Everett Morgan, Tyrone C. Howze, Willy Rowel, Tabia Thomas, Denise Asparagus, Ketia Semia, Luzern Washington and Gloria Davis-Hill. At The Rep. Inc. through June 30.