High-energy direction and a terrific ensemble cast keep "Jonin', " the first production of the African American-oriented American Theatre Project, cracking along. Set in a dorm shared by Omega Kappa Alphas and non-fraternity men on a nameless Washington campus (hint: the playwright, Gerard Brown, went to Howard), the play chronicles the disillusionment of one Omega in particular, Steve. Though the story of a serious young man who has to grow beyond his shallow companions is at least as old as "Henry IV," Brown transcends his overly familiar story through humor and vivid characterizations. He's also helped by the previous neglect of his subject: Black American experience is so underrepresented on stage that just by depicting black male college life "Jonin' " stakes out new territory. (The area has been covered in film, of course, by Spike Lee's much more caustic "School Daze.")
Steve enjoys horsing around with the guys, but he's beginning to think that he wants to do more in life than "get over." His attempts to disengage himself from the more cruel and stupid aspects of frat life are resisted, sometimes angrily, by his fellows. They particularly make fun of him when he objects to "jonin'," the semiritualized insults they exchange about one another's sexuality, girlfriends and mothers. Steve's desire to grow up is an implicit criticism of their childishness.
In plays with a Sensitive Young Hero, the sensitive young hero tends to be the only member of his group who isn't a loser. Brown has surrounded Steve with misfits. There's Eddie, who has managed to stay in school for six years without graduating, and QT, the stylish frat jerk, and Greg, the professional deadbeat. The most grotesque Omega is Duffy, a veritable monument to insensitivity who dances through life and the halls of his dorm cadging money and dropping insults. The outsiders get better treatment from Brown. Willie is a dignified student from an unnamed African country. Fred, a graduate student whose T-shirt indicates he did his undergraduate work at Morehouse, is the no-nonsense dorm monitor. And prim and self-possessed Constance is unapologetically gay. A token woman, Sheila, moves around the edges of this male world. More a device than a character, she exists to nag her boyfriend, Steve, about breaking away from his buddies.
Even without her pushing, Steve is beginning to have his doubts about the value of frat camaraderie. He senses the ugliness that underlies much of the jonin' -- an ugliness the perpetrator always denies by saying, "I was just messing with him."
There's something worse at work too. "Niggers don't ski," Greg tells the New Hampshire-bred Steve. "Niggers play basketball, football, dance... ." The word "nigger" flies around a lot. So does the insult "'bama." So do lines such as, "With you around, the white man got nothing to worry about." The African Willie is first called a gorilla and then King Kong. There's a seething self-hatred inside these "brothers" -- in the end, they can hardly help turning it on one another.
Brown graduated from Howard in 1975, and some of the details of "Jonin' " seem dated. Steve's wall sports a poster of King rather than Malcolm, for example. And it's unlikely that black students today would be so ignorant of and hostile toward Africa. But when the Omegas' repressed rage bursts out to destroy one of their own, the play becomes horribly contemporary.
Working on Lew Harrison's well-laid-out set, director Ed Bishop keeps things careening along. The guys roam in and out of Steve's room and run up and down the hall. They dance and play impromptu football. Bishop is doing something highly artificial -- choreographing precise movement in a small space -- but everything looks unforced and natural. His staging captures perfectly the rowdy casualness of dorm life.
The cast's work is individually of a very high quality. Ken Grant is a handsome, serious-minded Steve; he gives the slightly-too-virtuous part some weight. As Constance, Vaughn Michael has the showiest role, and he plays it with bold insouciance, like a young black Truman Capote. Robin C. Byrd accomplishes the near-impossible task of making the meatheaded Duffy not only funny but almost appealing. As Willie, Logan A. Johnson Jr. brings a foreign culture onto the stage; his quiet confidence is alien and deep-rooted. Larry Hull as the restless, jokey Greg, Berry A. Cuffee as the snotty QT, Joseph Mills III as the raucous Eddie and David B. Paul as the more adult Fred are also very fine. April A. Jones does her best with Sheila by investing her with humor and grit.
But it's the teamwork that really brings "Jonin' " alive. The actors are as loose and comfortable together as a jazz combo. American Theatre Project may be new, but the work on stage is fully professional. As a debut, "Jonin' " promises Washington theatergoers something to look forward to.
Jonin', by Gerard Brown. Directed by Ed Bishop. Set by Lew Harrison. Lights by Michael Batiste. Music design by Eddie Drennon. Costumes by Tracey White. With Ken Grant, Robin C. Byrd, Larry Hull, Berry A. Cuffee, David B. Paul, Vaughn Michael, Logan A. Johnson Jr., April A. Jones, Joseph Mills III. At the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW, through Feb. 3.