Yes We Can
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
June 23, 2011
What messes with your head more than “a new New York play”? This is the subtitle of Yes We Can from Down Payment Productions, and it is accurate because it shows a diverse cast of urban characters coming into contact with each other and in some cases struggling with their own identities. But it goes beyond, because New York, especially as portrayed here a few days before Barack Obama was elected, is also a microcosm of the human race.
It is Halloween 2008. Young New Yorkers are running around in masks, trying to be themselves and other people at the same time. We then see a scene on a bus, where a Caribbean nanny and the boy she takes care of have a fight and get off the bus. A couple of strangers named Larry and LeJean—an African-American man and woman sitting next to each other—have a disjointed conversation. The straight-talking Larry asks LeJean how she can watch a fellow black sister be abused like that. LeJean is shocked to be spoken to, tells Larry she is not black, then goes home and tells her friend that some “Crackhead” spoke to her on the bus. LeJean, later described as “uppity,” goes through her own crisis, asking acquaintances, her Rabbi, and even people on the street “what race am I?” The bus scene repeats several times during the play, sometimes indicating that the nanny is about to hit her young white charge for no reason, other times indicating that the rude child is provoking her.
The dynamic ensemble plays with the concept of race. LeJean and her spiritual leader Rabbi Q are both played by African Americans but do not acknowledge this. Then, LeJean visits her friend, the (white) Jewish Woman, who yells at her Partner offstage in fluent ebonics. While this is happening, LeJean contemplates watching videos such as Roots and Waiting to Exhale, suspecting they might hold some clues to who she really is. She even hopes she will see Larry again on the bus. Meanwhile, Larry is teaching his friend, a Chinese shopkeeper, how to file tax returns and arguing over what it means to be an American. Concurrently, Rabbi Q sees Jesus walking in the park, invites him to come to synagogue, and tries to convince the congregants to form personal connections. The play ends appropriately enough at Obama’s victory speech, but it raises questions that you may have encountered if you were living in this country in 2008. Are you a traitor to your race if you don’t vote for Obama? Does being apolitical mean you love yourself so much that you hate yourself? Are children of immigrants getting bad habits from associating with “American” children? Obama says change is coming, but these characters seem to be saying that the “we” of the title have always been in flux.
There is a lot going on in this play by Daniella Shoshan, and it is facilitated by Tristan Jeffers’s set. This consists of a scaffold design and some poles on rollers, which are quickly repositioned into bus, house, park, and synagogue layouts. Franny Bohar’s costumes evoke traditional Indian parents, elderly Latinos in the park, and lots of different Halloween personalities. Alec Strum’s direction is frenetic and artfully uses stereotypes to question stereotypes. Of all the cast, I was very impressed with the ones in the original “racially-charged incident”: Makeda Declet (LeJean), Ronald Washington (Larry), and Jehan O. Young (the Nanny). If you like to make up your own mind about any of the issues mentioned in this review, don’t miss this play.