'Soft' critique: young black men, gently steered towards liberation

Black manhood is envisioned as a delicate garden full of blossoms and wilts in Donja R. Love’s captivating new play, “Soft,” which recei...


Black manhood is envisioned as a delicate garden full of blossoms and wilts in Donja R. Love’s captivating new play, “Soft,” which receives its world premiere at MCC Theater in Manhattan.

Adam Rigg’s classroom, surrounded by vibrant flowers and onlookers, immerses you in a sense of tranquility before the sound of prison bars heralds the start of the play, which takes place in the classroom of English from a youth correctional facility. Despite the distress at the heart of these young men’s situation, Love convincingly offers a sense of hope, showing how critical outside encouragement and a commitment to self-improvement are to their release.

A phenomenally grounded Biko Eisen-Martin as Mr. Isaiah, the school’s English teacher, helps the Whitney White-directed production borders on the trope of the holy educator who brings out the best in his students. With sparse sentimentality but firm understanding, his performance creates space for Love’s larger themes of redemption in a system set up to keep young black men locked up.

At the start of the play, Isaiah, conveying that he’s not much older than his late teenage students through serious daps and hype, is impressed with their recent essays on “Othello”, especially the observation by Kevin (Shakur Tolliver) that the abuse and isolation felt by Shakespeare’s Tragic Heath isn’t all that different from the circumstances that brought them here.

Some, like the hot-headed Bashir (Travis Raeburn) and outlandish queer Dee (Essence Lotus), claim their crimes resulted in no casualties – driven by the need to survive. Others, like laid-back crack dealer Jamal (a fantastic Dario Vazquez), have no such illusions. Eddie (Ed Ventura, in the production’s most physical role), meanwhile, is just happy to be away from his abusive home.

Isaiah’s own background includes a brush with the law, as his boss, Mr. Cartwright (Leon Addison Brown) reminds him somewhat menacingly: “We’re all where we are thanks to someone’s good graces. .” If the students are to look to Isaiah for approval and mercy, the teacher himself is resigned to Cartwright’s divine status within the establishment, his voice periodically issuing commands through loudspeakers.

Caught in the double bind of toxic masculinity and a racist revolving door prison system, where does the accountability end? When a student escapes by suicide, his close friend (or was he more?) Antoine, played by a quivering Dharon Jones, backs out of the impasse by refusing to talk. Heavy with guilt, Isaiah tries to get his students to verbalize his displeasure, resulting in (sometimes contrived) arguments and incredibly choreographed physical fights. UnkleDave’s Battle House.

Taught by Love’s script not to cry on stage, the production instead finds catharsis through White’s direction, attentive to the physicality of the characters and the complex relationships with each other. Qween Jean’s suits cleverly situate a chic aesthetic somewhere between orange jumpsuits and athleisure. (The way the flamboyant Dee cuts out and alters her outfits is a charming nod to queer creativity).

It’s all in service to Love’s belief that hope springs eternal, if not here, at least in our next lives, as gracefully evoked by Rigg’s simple, almost schoolyard-like setting and music. original heavy harp by Mauricio Escamilla during an ethereal coda. In earlier plays like “Sugar in our wounds” and “one in two,” Love has demonstrated an admirable commitment to thoughtfully portraying black queerness in all its forms. The new work expands the canvas, reminding us (in the words of Tennessee Williams) that we are all “kids in a vast kindergarten, trying to spell God’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks.”

The love here doesn’t rely on such grandiose statements, but it powerfully conveys a paradoxical modern malaise – a sense of unsupervised surveillance, where it feels like we’re both left to our own devices- themselves and under someone’s watchful eye. Its “Soft” is a nice encouragement to lower our guards and leave the harshness to our difficulties themselves.

Soft, tender
Through June 26 at the MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Duration: 1h40.

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