By DAN STAHL
“Echinacea,” chimes the voice of a precocious black boy. “Ginseng. Slippery elm. Castor oil!” So begins Through the Night, with young Eric brewing herbal tea above his father's health food store. He wants to cure the aching hearts he encounters on a daily basis, and Daniel Beaty, writer-performer of this solo play at Union Square Theatre, is up to something similar.
“My work is unabashedly hopeful,” Beaty says. “It’s a very conscious social commentary on what’s going on in our world right now, and I believe that being inspired by—having our minds opened by—a piece of art can cause us to change how we live in the world.”
Hopeful does not always mean happy, however, especially where Through the Night’s characters are concerned. Just ask Dre, a former drug dealer who unwittingly transmits HIV to his pregnant girlfriend and their unborn child. Or Bishop, a tortured glutton who can’t stop himself from ransacking the garbage to dig out a box of Ho Hos.
These characters and the challenges they face are more than figments of Beaty's imagination. “I was first inspired to write this play by a book the [National] Urban League put out called The State of Black America 2007: Portrait of the Black Male,” he explains. “It was a series of scholarly essays and statistics about the primary issues facing black men in America. Initially, I began to explore what these major issues were. Then creatively, I started thinking, ‘What would be the most unexpected character to embody this issue?’”
In addition to drug abuse and obesity, Beaty spotlights poverty, education, father-son relationships, and homosexuality, with a single character often epitomizing two or three problems. Isaac, for instance, is a senior vice president of marketing at a top record label, but he describes himself as “an alien disguised as a well-adjusted black man.” Paralyzed by his father's expectations, he promises to marry a female friend rather than live an openly gay life. At the same time, he mentors a dyslexic student out of an underfunded school and into college.
Beaty's characters express themselves in rhythmic and often rhyming monologues, underscoring the fact that they are not only individuals, but also representations of an entire community. Thus, when Dre wants to do right by his girlfriend, he begins by saying: “Beautiful Black Brown Lady/Woman, discover me how to be a man for you/How do broken people love each other?"
Though it buffets the audience, Through the Night withholds a final catharsis. There is a suggestion of hope, yes, but no guarantee that problems will be solved. The open ending invites patrons to speculate on the trajectory of the plot as well as its significance.
By emphasizing uncertainty and contemporary struggles, Through the Night compels theatregoers to provide the resolution the play lacks. At least, that’s the idea, according to Beaty. This approach is drawn directly from the people who have influenced him. “People ask me who my hero is as a writer and actor, and I say, ‘Dr. King.’ People don’t expect that,” he laughs. “They expect to hear some famous actor, and there are many actors and playwrights that I love. But when I think of what inspires me, I’m referencing people who had this real sentiment and passion with a combination of words and action that could literally shift our world.”
Dan Stahl is a reporter and critic based in New York
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