SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA., July 10, 2017 – Now on stage as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), the world premiere staging of Kara Lee Corthron’s “Welcome to Fear City” is certainly the wildest, most in-your-face production of this long-running new American play fest’s 2017 edition.
Chaotic and almost formless at times, Corthron’s play runs on a dual track, partly charting the early days of the hip-hop music phenomenon while also noting the parallel, closed-loop system of poverty and despair that shaped the lifestyle and politics of the fast-decaying South Bronx – aka “Fear City” circa 1977 – in the midst of New York City mayor Abe Beame’s failed term in office.
Above all, “Welcome to Fear City” a play by, for and about the black experience in urban America during a time not far removed from the traumatic events of the 1960s. Those indelibly-etched horrors ranged from LBJ’s increasingly unpopular Vietnam War to the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy as well as the tragic murder of Dr. Martin Luther King – an epic tragedy that has haunted this country ever since it occurred nearly 50 years ago.
Arguably, the King assassination brought to a sudden and abrupt conclusion his long-running efforts to bring African-Americans fully into the vitality and entrepreneurial richness of the American tradition – a full citizenship that had been consistently denied to them since the era of slavery ended. And long before.
After his death, however, this peaceful Civil Rights movement was quickly taken over by younger, more impatient radicals who, over time, wanted little to do with a country that had systematically left them behind.
Corthron has inserted her all-black cast of youthful characters squarely into the middle of this post-King era of racial and political urban ferment. We discover them busily immersed in the developing urban culture they’ve begun to evolve for themselves, the better to withdraw, consciously or unconsciously, from the larger American construct by rejecting it out of hand.
“Welcome to Fear City” places the theater audience squarely at the dawn of this era, a time when Motown music morphed into the dominant rap and hip-hop musical culture that spread inexorably outward from its origins in America’s inner cities.
The early origins of hip-hop leads to a larger social evolution that’s played out through the central intelligence of “E” (Dyllon Burnside). E is an educated, sensitive and culturally young black man who’s clearly familiar with the Western literary and poetic canon – something that’s inspired him to borrow its metrical and rhyming subsets as a basis for forging his own artistic present by means of an entirely new music that draws its rhythms and traditions from his own African heritage. E’s early approach is not particularly impressive, but he’s trying.
But we’re dealing with the impoverished inner city core in this play, not trendy Manhattan or the more distant wealthy, largely white suburbs. E eventually is forced into the web of urban violence and crime as a way to advance in a closed society that offers no alternative route of escape. He throws his lot in with a politically-connected crook, planning and pulling off a crime whose consequences he can never fully escape. It’s an act that directly or indirectly transforms his artistic dreams into just a distant memory.
In Corthron’s dramatic universe, the hip-hop musical culture provides the bass line for her musical and temporal narrative. The drama itself is a kaleidoscope of short scenes wherein her various characters learn to become expert survivors. Yet they never prosper in the ways they initially envisioned. They simply don’t have the tools.
E, for example, does have an actual family, headed up by a touchy mom and also including an exuberant and occasionally absent sister who keeps moving her own life goal posts. But of course, E’s household has no dad. For that reason, he seeks comfort in the largely male dad substitutes that control the squalid streets and alleys in the ‘hood.
In many ways, this play is like a Dantesque descent into hell, a horror-filled journey into the nether world that nonetheless allows a story’s hero to emerge from that dismal place having learned crucial truths and gained important knowledge that will enable the hero to survive and, perhaps, thrive as well.
“Fear City” is picaresque, episodic and even quite funny at times. We learn where things are going via an immersive experience with its crazy array of disparate characters, not by following a traditionally linear plot.
Some playgoers – unless they’ve been devotees of HBO’s brutally hard-hitting urban series “The Wire” – may at first find this drama’s fast-paced African-American dialogue a bit difficult to follow, although the actors seem to have watered it down just a bit to keep the material accessible. In any event, the dialog and the fast pace launched and rigorously maintained by director Nicole A. Watson keep this drama chugging along at a brisk pace.
Where this play falls down somewhat is in its coda, whose confusing conclusion takes us back to “Fear City’s” opening chaos. We do get brief narratives about how the major characters turn out later in life, a common closure tradition in episodic movies and TV series. But the over all impression as the metaphorical curtain falls is one of confusion.
Whatever your own final judgment, this production’s talented cast – particularly Dyllon Burnside’s sympathetic and highly appealing (if troubled) E – latches firmly onto the inner truth of their various characters, celebrating them nonstop in word, verse, song and dance.
While “Fear City” is entertaining and informative, it doesn’t seem to offer a lot of hope that the modern American racial divide that arguably arose with the King assassination so many years ago will ever be bridged within our lifetime. Old battles and animosities that arose in the distant past are fought again and again to no positive effect.
Few seem willing today to move on. That in and of itself shows us what we truly lost on April 4, 1968 on that lonely motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
Rating: ** (2 out of 4 stars)
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Festival continues through July 30, 2017.