nytheatre.com review by Mel House
September 2, 2012
Should a white couple be allowed to adopt a black child? I heard a heated debate over my right shoulder on 42nd Street, as I was leaving Theatre East’s production of Bennett Windheim’s new play Normalcy. I paused to listen for a moment. One woman explained that cultural identity is essential to a person’s self esteem. While another woman argued that a good home is a good home, and that love is the most important thing. As a former foster child and current member of a blended family, I had a thing or two to say. Honest conversations about race in a diverse public forum are too rare, and I am glad Theatre East has chosen to produce a piece with depth. No matter what your point of view, this piece should get you talking. And that’s the point!
Imagine a white wealthy Manhattanite couple. Sarah (played with a great deal of soul by Aleisha Force) is on her way to becoming the Fashion Editor at a successful magazine, while traveling and winning awards. Peter (played by a likable Judson Jones) is a Madison Avenue Ad Man, with a sexy brown female assistant (Sarah Joyce). But despite their outward successes, their parents aren’t satisfied. Peter’s Dad (Harvey Guion) worries about the couple’s reliance on “meaningless” work for happiness--what do these two actually do? make? contribute to the world? While Sarah’s immigrant Mom (Mary Ann Hay) believes the couple needs a baby. Her insistence obviously strikes a nerve.
When a series of national and local disasters occur, Peter feels that it is time for something to change. Perhaps he can leave his job to seek something more meaningful? Sarah chides, “You can never earn a decent living and feel good about yourself.” She wants him to return to normalcy and warns, “I love our life, please don’t fuck with it!” They ultimately compromise: he will continue in his position and they will seek a transracial adoption--ideally, a black male infant. Their news does not thrill their parents--why a black baby?
When the Ehrlichs meet with an African-American social worker to begin the adoption process, the heart of the piece becomes more clear and painfully funny. The Ehrlichs want to do something meaningful with their lives, so they select the most important thing they can image--parenting a child with the greatest need. But rather then praise them, social worker Catherine Saunders (Darlene Hope) confronts them. How will they handle angry accusations of cultural colonialism? of watering down the black culture? And what happens when he comes home saying, “What’s up my Nigga?!”
As they wait for the perfect infant, the couple begins spending time with a seven year old boy with ADD. They struggle with their motivations, their relationship and the opinions of others. Seeking more answers, Sarah attends an event organized for couples considering transracial adoption. Lisha Mckoy, playing the guest speaker Aiesha Lawrence, gives a fully alive and heart-wrenching performance. The honest conversation between Sarah and Aiesha is vital and compelling, and one of my favorite scenes in the play. To find out how it all shakes out, you’ll have to come check it out yourself.
Normalcy runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. This play is densely packed with information, but under the direction of Benard Cummings, the pace is tight and the actors are fully committed. The set is a bit clunky and seems to cause some staging problems--at times forcing actors into a single plane with little to do physically. The structure of the set clearly has to serve Theatre East’s other production, The Jungle Book, and therefore, creates a big challenge for Designer Lea Anello, working on a showcase budget. That said, a large creative team supports this production rather effectively.
Theatre East’s Artistic Director, Judson Jones, believes “theatre exists to serve its community, much like the feed store, the local house of worship or the old barbershop. It serves as a place where ideas are exchanged and challenged.” They are vigorously pursuing this goal in their current season--a family production of The Jungle Book, written and adapted by Megan O’Brien, as well as Bennett Windhem’s Normalcy--playing through September 23rd at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.