Savannah Black & Blue
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 7, 2009
One of the things I love best about theatre is that it lets me spend time with people whom I would probably not otherwise have an opportunity to meet. Case in point: Savannah, the young African American woman who is the protagonist of Raymond Jones's compassionate and interesting new play, Savannah Black & Blue. Born in NYC to a hard-working single mother and a mostly absent dad who earns his living by running numbers, Savannah grows up parked in front of the TV set, where her favorite shows are the ones about cops: Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Hawaii Five-O, and—best of all—The Mod Squad. Savannah tells us that Linc (the Clarence Williams III character) was the one she liked best. (What other images of African American cops did we have on TV back then?) So it's not really that surprising when, after a few false starts, Savannah settles upon joining the police force as her career path.
The play tells Savannah's life story straightforwardly, introducing us to her family—in addition to her parents, we meet her sassy grandmother, who dispenses plenty of smart advice along with tasty macaroni and cheese—and to her high school sweetheart, Sheldon, who eventually becomes her husband. But the play really ignites when Savannah joins the NYPD, and its exploration of the many challenges she faces as a young black woman police officer provide the most compelling aspects of this story.
There is of course the daily grind of the job, which takes in dangerous and even life-threatening moments as well as the tedium of long nights on patrol. But Savannah Black & Blue lets us in on less obvious problems, such as the particular brand of disrespect that a female cop has to put up with from the public and perps, and more personal issues like her husband Sheldon's jealousy over the time she spends on the job with her male partner. The playwright spent many years working in the Bronx District Attorney's office and his own experiences clearly informs his writing: the play feels completely authentic, and provides a rare and rewarding chance for someone like me to walk a mile in the shoes of someone like Savannah.
The production, under the auspices of the Negro Ensemble Company, is directed by Charles Weldon, who keeps things taut and well-balanced. Ciera Payton gives a fine performance in the title role, creating a convincingly complex, fully-dimensional woman. Ohene Cornelius does solid work as Sheldon, and Kimberlyn Crawford (as Savannah's grandmother) and Thyais Walsh (as Savannah's mother) also deliver expert performances. Chris Johnson and Jammie Patton stand out among the ensemble members in a variety of roles, including a couple of disorderly citizens (Johnson) and Savannah's feisty Latina partner (Patton).
The design is spare and simple, allowing the story to move forward cleanly in the intimate space. The neatest touch is probably Elliot Lanes's sound, which includes a delightful medley of themes from TV cop shows to get the audience in the mood before the show begins.