The intriguing crux of Marvin McAllister's provocative "Draft Day" is that a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, the fates of some gifted black men remain tucked away in another man's wallet. In a 90-minute rhetorical drama linking the two eras, McAllister draws parallels between the selling of slaves according to their African tribes and the "buying" of athletes for service to professional basketball teams.
The play, presented at the Atlas Performing Arts Center by African Continuum Theatre, is the playwright's cerebral meditation on how the marketing of physical dexterity in the age of multimillionaire players could have had an antecedent in the slave traders' practice of extolling the strength and endurance of the men and women they shackled and put on the block.
The piece is staged by Tre Garrett with an appealing lack of pretension: just a few props, a few lighting cues and some incidental music. It is performed, too, with some flair, in particular by Marc R. Payne and G. Alvarez Reid as rival stars on the same college team who are waiting to hear whether they have been picked in the annual draft of a fictional professional basketball league, the TBA.
Although much of McAllister's dialogue is polished, this is not an intensely dramatic evening. Like a cabbie who drives you around in circles, the play sort of picks you up and drops you off at the same address. The playwright is a lecturer at Howard University, and his academic role jibes with the play's effect. "Draft Day" more or less presents a thesis, offers some compelling examples and dismisses the class. Still, the freshness of McAllister's smart commentary makes the lecture well worth attending.
African Continuum is offering "Draft Day" in rotation with another new work, David Emerson Toney's "Kingdom," an updating of "Richard III." Reserving space for original work by vital voices is just what a company such as ACTCo should be up to. "Draft Day" signals the kind of initiative that adds luster to a small company's mission.
The play unfolds simultaneously in two epochs. In the one, a slave trader (Michael Kramer) is instructing a younger man (Anthony Gallagher) on the brutal finer points of keeping and selling human beings. In the other, the anxious athletes gaze out at their entourages as the complex machinations of the draft, determining what kind of riches await them (or not), play out. An actress, Dionne Audain, is a kind of troublemaking influence in each of the eras, portraying both a subversive assistant to the slave trader -- she sabotages the slaves' shackles -- and a reporter who seeks to unmask before the cameras the cocky young players' insecurities and past misadventures.
Payne is very fine indeed as the budding pro superstar, with a jock's self-satisfied grin and dreams of himself as a one-man sports conglomerate. The exchanges between Payne's Kenya Manhattan and Reid's Mecca Roanoke are the evening's wittiest and most evocative. They are flawed man-children, hoping to grab the reins of their own destinies but not sure how much really is theirs to control.
The correspondences that McAllister draws between 19th-century slave trading and 21st-century player-trading are a bit too blatantly underlined. We get it -- the players are for sale -- long before the evening is done with the topic. (The surname of the slave trader, for instance, is the same as that of Kenya's unseen agent.) The play, too, probably could benefit from a more imaginative interplay between the eras.
As it is, though, "Draft Day" is a brisk exposure to an engaging argument. Even if the destination is all too apparent, it almost always feels like a step in the right direction.
Draft Day, by Marvin McAllister. Directed by Tre Garrett. Set, Tracie Duncan; lighting, Dan Covey; costumes, William Pucilowski; sound, David Lamont Wilson. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 11 at Atlas Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com.