nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
July 15, 2007
Poetry in motion. Story with music. Show and Tell in high style. All of above describe WEBEIME, yet none captures the entire experience. You simply have to see it to get it.
The story and spirit of the play itself are not complicated, just not easy to take for the sheer misery of it. It's about a death row inmate recalling his short and violent life, how the harrowing abuse at home has trapped him in a nightmare he cannot get free from. However, the forms this story takes are so intricate and free-flowing that even at its harshest—like the abuse scenes—I couldn't take my eyes off the stage.
"Stop! Don't blink. Look at his pain." One man says.
And that's just one of them. A total of seven men, sometimes as a group, tell the young convict's story while he sits alone at the back writing away in a little notebook. These men sing, dance, act, and give monologues, mostly in the first person. The transition from one narrative to another is seamless, often as a flashback from a particular memory—or a reflection on a memory.
It is one heartbreaking story shared by too many, which is why the joint storytelling is so compelling. Is it one man's life through different emotional lenses? Or is it a composite tale of many men's collective hardship, indeed the story of an entire group of people?
"Black men. We be who I be. That's me. Can't you see?"
Hence the title makes perfect sense, and makes its own poetry.
What drew me in most is how the inner torments are projected with incredibly vivid movements, in a multi-faceted fashion. The entire show is a layered labyrinth, with the despair running deep.
"If there is ever God, I need you now. Just please, talk to me..." One of the men prays, and then laughs."...Right." The others laugh too, "Right! Right!"
A sweet and all too brief encounter with a girl the inmate has a crush on in school, and some lighter parts of his life, are joyous, showing the innocent, childlike side of him. I almost wanted to sing and dance along with them, but the heartaches are always there, lurking behind the beautiful smiles.
There are a couple of things about the production that I question. One is the repetitive depictions of some of the scenes, using different styles and devices. I can take them as recurring memories, or an attempt to individualize the experience for each man, but it gives the sense of circling the same idea rather than expanding or deepening that idea.
The other is that when the reason for the young man's incarceration—indeed pending execution—is revealed, it is almost as a passing allusion, without much explanation. I wanted to know more about that crucial juncture that was bringing about his end.
I'd also love to see WEBEIME on a bigger stage. The theatre I was in is better suited for a smaller cast, though that did make the eight actors that much more impressive for delivering such a physical piece. Each man has his own distinct flair and temperament, and together they give the story divergent flavors. When they work as a group, they are a force of nature. Writer-director-choreographer Layon Gray deserves kudos for making the familiar new and shocking again. There were tears on and off the stage. When the young man as a child begged his father, "80 seconds of your time is all I ask," tears came to my eyes too.