nytheatre.com review by Dan Asher
August 15, 2004
Simple Thoughts, Twilight Repertory’s inaugural piece, is a slice-of-life play, a day or two in the life of Jesse B. Semple, better known in the neighborhood as “Simple.” According to the program notes, Semple is a character that first appeared in a weekly column written by Langston Hughes for the Chicago Defender in the early 1940s. Hughes employed Semple’s “everyman” character in many of the books and theatrical pieces that he produced throughout his writing career.
The play is set in 1940s Harlem, and follows Semple’s routine of drinking a beer or three at the corner watering hole, while trading vociferous jabs with his buddy Ananias on topics ranging from race relations to women to family, government, God and the atom bomb. Set designer Tim Weathersby cooks up a simple but effective rendition of an uptown bar, and the costumes (Paula Garafalo) have the feel of post-war Harlem.
I believe that the overall point of the piece is that the enduring qualities of Semple’s character, and his struggles, are no different then yours or mine, whatever race or generation to which we belong. But director James Vesce, who also did the adaptation and additional writing (and he is, at times, both crafty and clever in shaping the play's dialogue), seems unsure about trusting in this idea. Semple’s actions and the play’s plot and relationships seem a little vanilla. I could certainly recognize Semple’s problems and issues and any number of his complaints, but I just didn’t feel for his plight as a person. What would make us relate to Semple better would be for us to understand how each of us is shaped by the specific circumstances of our race, generation, family, choice of lovers, etc. A clearer sense of period and place in Vesce's work would go a long way here.
The cast and company are all students hailing from North Carolina. Although the acting is uneven at times, the supporting cast adequately portrays the various people that populate Semple's world. They are a brave bunch and hopefully they will return to next year's festival and/or the New York scene sometime soon. As the main character Semple, Calvin Thompson does a very nice job.
Overall, Simple Thoughts is a professionally put-together evening and enjoyable show. You can be sure that Jesse B. Semple is carrying the torch for us all. “I’m willing to help you God, I just don’t know what to do,” says Semple. If that doesn’t sum up the mystery of the goodness and inherent cluelessness of the human condition, I don’t know what does.