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A new drama explores the fraught relationship between an African-American father and son
As performances got underway for James Anthony Tyler's Some Old Black Man at 59E59 Theaters, the up-and-coming playwright found himself weighing changes to the script. "There's one we're still debating," he admits a few days into previews. "A character is reflecting on how back in his hometown, he'd go to the diner and get a coffee, half-and-half, and two sugars." Because of his other dietary habits, someone suggested that it should be six sugars.
"There was this whole debate in the room: 'Are we putting this in for a cheap laugh, or is it something that is significant to the character?'" Tyler recalls. "We have really worked hard not to make either one of these men a joke or a type."
That attention to a seemingly minute detail is an example of how lovingly Tyler has crafted the characters in his 90-minute two-hander. Directed by Joe Cacaci, and starring Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Tony winner Roger Robinson (Joe Turner's Come and Gone), Some Old Black Man takes place over the course of one challenging and exhausting morning for a father and son. Pierce plays Calvin, a 62-year-old college professor who's just moved his irascible, blue-collar, 82-year-old dad, Donald (Robinson), from Greenwald, Mississippi into his Harlem penthouse. Both men are widowers and have a strained relationship. They can't even get through breakfast without tensions boiling over, especially after Calvin forces yogurt on his father -- a man used to bacon, grits, and the aforementioned sugar in his coffee.
Throughout most of their history, "Donald and Calvin did not communicate well with each other," Tyler explains. "There were a lot of ideas festering in both of them, and they're finding out so much stuff in this one day that they could have found out years ago if they would have just talked to each other. But I think that happens with a lot of us in life."
Tyler has been thinking about Donald and Calvin since 2010, when he was getting his MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University. How does a young, early career playwright end up penning a work about two men well into the AARP age range? "In graduate school, I was called the 'old-person playwright,'" he says with a laugh. "I just loved writing these characters that have lived a life. There's ways to incorporate our country's history into their experiences."
And Tyler does just that. In the script, Donald is described as "mentally imprisoned by American history," a black man who grew up in the Jim Crow-era South, then saw his son go to college in the North and marry a white woman. Race, education, and generational differences divide the pair. The fact that Donald joined the military at 16 to try to improve his life only exacerbates their ideological disconnect.
"That is what my grandfather did," Tyler says, before stating emphatically that Donald is not based on his relative. "My grandfather was so much kinder than Donald -- he was a lot more progressive. But I took details like the military and the foods. They definitely have the foods in common."
For someone who says he "stumbled into playwriting without knowing a lot," Tyler is having an impressive run. He had a hit last year with the politically charged workplace drama Dolphins and Sharks at the Labyrinth Theater Company. Last month, the Dramatists Guild gave him the Horton Foote Playwriting Award, which recognizes a writer "whose work explores the nature of being human." And this summer, his play Artney Jackson will have its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Yet Tyler, who grew up in Las Vegas, was initially interested in film. In fact, he got his MFA in the subject at Howard University, and then enrolled in the NYU program, where a playwriting course was a requirement. "The first play I wrote was the 10-minute version of Some Old Black Man," he says. "The professor in that class said, 'OK, you're a playwright,' and convinced me I was. I just kept going."
Berkshire Playwrights Lab presented the world premiere of the full-length Some Old Black Man in Great Barrington, Massachusetts last year starring Robinson and Leon Addison Brown. The response was so favorable, the company decided to bring the production to New York with Pierce taking over for Brown. Although the Off-Broadway run got off to a bumpy start -- Robinson fell ill so his understudy stepped in for several previews -- everything is now back on track. And Tyler seems thrilled. "For a while with theatre I was just so unsure and so afraid," he admits. "But I learned the way to keep an audience paying attention. It just became so fascinating for me. Now I'm obsessed."
To read about a student's experience at Some Old Black Man, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Diane Snyder writes about theatre for Time Out New York and The Telegraph. Follow her at @DianeLSnyder. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Wendell Pierce and Roger Robinson in Some Old Black Man. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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