Good solid acting raises the emotional stakes in “The Legend of Buster Neal,” transforming playwright Jackie Alexander’s heavy-handed fable from sermon to drama in the African Continuum Theatre Company’s workmanlike production, which continues Friday and Saturday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Under the direction of Tre Garrett, the strong cast brings vividly to life Alexander’s sextet of working-class African American men and boys, all struggling to survive and do right by one another. The show is a reasonably satisfying slice of message-based theater, but it could have burned brighter, even on a shoestring, and despite the fact that too many key events in Alexander’s structurally flawed script take place offstage.
In a brief prologue, we see the play’s title character, Buster Neal (Y. Mustafaa Madyun), on his front porch, shotgun in hand, taking a stand against a Ku Klux Klansman who shouts threats from offstage. A gunshot and a blackout ensue. When the lights come up, it’s some 60 years later, and his descendants are trying to cope with modern life in a crime-ridden New Orleans neighborhood. They have nearly forgotten the heroism of their ancestor.
Ira (Daron P. Stewart) holds down multiple jobs. He’s separated from his wife, and their 16-year-old son, Marcus (Joshua Nelson), has recently come to live with him. Marcus is a smart kid but teeters on the edge of disaster, carrying “packages” for a thug named Tank (Gregory “Rico” Parker) and pulling his 14-year-old friend Hub Cap (Akil Williams) into trouble with him.
Ira’s dad, Papa Melvin (Thomas Howell), lives with them, his unseeing eyes damaged in Vietnam and hidden by sunglasses. Ira and Papa Melvin have just buried Melvin’s father — Marcus’s great-granddad — the day before, so family is on their minds. Papa Melvin chides Ira for failing to keep a closer watch on Marcus, but Ira has difficulty shouldering paternal responsibility. Into this fraught situation, preceded by a clap of thunder, walks Buster Neal — or his spirit in highly corporeal form.
The family doesn’t recognize him for ages. He introduces himself as a friend of the great-granddad who’s just passed, and they instinctively allow him to observe and advise them. So when Tank orders Marcus and Hub Cap to commit a murder, Buster is there to help the adults ward off potential tragedy. It’s not that they don’t see the peril themselves, playwright Alexander seems to imply, it’s that a voice from the past must call them to action.
All this unfolds on a minimalist wooden set surrounded on three sides by the audience. Designer Sean Urbantke deftly evokes a family room, back porch and yard without obscuring any views. The room sits on a platform framed by skeletal walls and doors; it’s filled with worn furniture that says this is the home of working people. Arnika L. Downey’s lighting marks the passage of the hours from early morning to deep night with nice simplicity. Simple blackouts are used for scene changes, executed by Garrett and his cast with quiet speed.
So the naturalistic side of “The Legend of Buster Neal” gets solid, if bare-bones, production values and worthy acting from African Continuum, while the magical realism that is also key to the story gets disappointingly short shrift. If Garrett and his team had better developed the supernatural/spiritual theme that weaves handily throughout the play, its narrative failings — and its preachiness — might have been finessed. Thunderclaps may set off Buster Neal’s arrival and departure well enough, but in his many other scenes as a houseguest, no light or sound element reaffirms his otherworldliness; he just interjects at key moments to set the other characters on a better path.
In that regard, the good cast, already challenged to make Alexander’s script more supple, could have used a dash of theatrical magic.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by Jackie Alexander. Directed by Tre Garrett. Costumes, LeVonne D. Lindsey; sound, David L. Wilson. About 90 minutes. The remaining two performances take place Friday and Saturday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993, Ext. 2, or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com.