Give and Go: Learning from Losing to the Harlem Globetrotters
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 10, 2007
6'6" completely bald Brandt Johnson towers over the audience in his semi-autobiographical, high-spirited one-man cavalcade of characters, Give and Go: Learning from Losing to the Harlem Globetrotters, and would stand a good chance at being the tallest object onstage in this year's FringeNYC Festival, were it not for the mounted basketball hoop he swishes free throws into throughout the show. It's got a few feet on him.
He delivers the life story of Billy, a fictional character, but it parallels Johnson's own journey closely. Like Billy, Johnson played basketball from childhood through college, became an investment banker, and then returned to the court, as a player for the opposing team that toured with, and always lost to, the Harlem Globetrotters in exhibition games around the world. Johnson plays Billy occasionally, but most of his words are directed at the central character, spoken by one of a tightly defined, rotated collection of hilarious philosophers in Billy's life on and off the court. We hear his high school coach bark out demands for arch precision, for each player to become a "human machine," preparing for free throws in an identical manner each time he toes the line. The ultimate price for any player who does not leave his blood on the court: the intramural league. Billy's investment banking firm president delivers a harrowing, Gordon Gekko-esque message to him and his rookie colleagues on their first day: Lasting employees will put the firm before personality, personal time, friends, and family, certainly. But ALL things will be placed before polyester in the office.
It is Winnie, though, player/coach for the Harlem Globetrotters, who with infectious ease gives the play its heart and message, turning Billy into "Wall Street," the nickname that adorns Billy's Boston Shamrocks jersey every night they lose to the Globetrotters in games that are equal parts dance, slapstick, and athleticism. Winnie's advice to Billy: find the "dance" in the game by getting out of his own way. Free throwers are not robots. If music starts playing when Billy is about to shoot, the correct instinct is the human one: dance. Improvise.
"Give-and-go" is the basketball play where the dribbler approaches the basket on a run, passes, continues forward on a run, and hopefully receives the ball back in his hands with just the right timing to take his momentum up into the air for a leap basket. Though tight precision does not always equal success—Winnie reminds Billy that the play isn't called "Give-and-go-and-get"—it is an important part of pacing, which this show has in spades. Director Andrew Garman keeps a sports-like feel of adrenaline coursing from scene to scene, employing Keith "Wild Child" Middleton's fast-paced music and adroit costume changes, particularly the superhero reveal of bright-red jersey material as Johnson unbuttons his banker shirt, á la Superman. Another savvy device is the use of "referees" Matthew Hodge and Storme Sundberg, who assist Johnson onstage with props, set, and costumes, not to mention the basketball itself, rebounding it and passing it to him as required.
Johnson shows fantastic range with his many characters without losing entertaining similarities, particularly between the manner of his high school basketball coach and investment banking boss. As today's sports pages increasingly fill with ugly personal sagas such as those of Barry Bonds and Michael Vick, Billy's story restores regard for the athlete, as he demonstrates integrity and a willingness to learn lessons in his search for identity. Oh, and he has a sense of humor. Take notes, Barry.