“Wannabe” is an intriguingly deep dive into the lives of five Black kids that follows them from the early 1980s to young adulthood in Front Royal, VA. There are also three white characters — one of them is the wannabe. These are fleshed-out portraits and the cast is amazing to watch.
It’s a beautiful play that I hope to see on stage one day.
The story follows the five friends from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Living in a rural Virginia town that is pretty divided along black and white lines (and Jewish, also), the script doesn’t pull punches on the narrowing choices many face and the casual, everyday racism that defines their world.
And it also speaks of redemption, forgiveness, and resilience.
While some of the scenarios in which playwright J.J. Johnson engulfs his characters seem overly familiar, that’s because that is a reality of what growing up in a society that has made racism, discrimination, and denial of past sins a bedrock foundation does to people. Teen pregnancy, drug addiction, drug dealing, abuse in families — it happens. It happens everywhere, but when you add the burden of racism on top of it, it’s just cruel. One of the most telling lines was when the primary narrator, Jay (a beautifully real Evin Howell) says of a shopping expedition in a store, that he was followed by a white sales clerk and made it into a bitter game before just dropping everything he had looked at and walking out.
We meet the characters when they are around seven to eight years old, and follow them for the next 10-11 years. Jay is one of the lucky ones that has an intact family, although it seems a little too fortuitous that his father is a minister and his mom is home. He provides a bedrock to his friends even as they sometimes mock him for his quirks, one of which is a years-long infatuation with Barbara Mandrell. For some, he’s not black enough, particularly when they are seeking a safe place to rail against the world they inhabit. For others, he’s just lumped in with another Black youth —someone to be feared and controlled. Howell does a masterful job of navigating growing up trying to be true to himself and maintaining relationships that seem stuck.
His best friends are Quinton (Abdul Taylor) and Oobie (Neko Ramos). The latter is in and out of juvie, usually for being involved in the drug trade. He has charm, a killer smile, and is seduced by having cash — and you ache for such short-term dreams. Cassie, portrayed by Samantha Williams, is a fighter (literally and metaphorically) and one of the most complex characters. Wilma Lynn Horton plays Sasha, another friend, who gets pregnant in high school, but has determination quietly coming out of every pore. They meet a girl in middle school — Melody (winningly played by Isabelle Rose Lash) who is white, but becomes one of their group. She holds on to Cassie even when everyone else is overwhelmed by her. She and her family are also Jewish, which means she’s sort of an outcast in the town too.
Then there are the two other white characters, Aaron (Connor Patrick Donahue) and Chad (Noah Sommers). Sommers has the unenviable task of standing in for all of the overtly and covertly white racist population. He manages to eke out of a rather broadly drawn character the unthinking and underlying fear of the white populace. Donahue is the wannabe. He wants to be black, he says, he tries to out-black his Black friends. Yet, being white, he really has no consequences, even though he’s the one who lures a hurt and angry Cassie into trying and selling crack.
This play excels at highlighting the disparities in daily treatment and institutionalized racism (from clerks who follow Black kids in stores to guidance counselors who can’t imagine Black kids achieving college, and a judicial system that punishes more harshly for being Black). And it does it within the context of letting the characters have center stage.
The only awkward moments came in some of the “interludes,” which I assume would happen during scene changes. Some were more successful than others in deepening a character’s inner life and others seemed more like filler.
J.J. Johnson has written a thoughtful, sensitive piece about growing up Black in a world that stigmatizes from a young age. He has done so while still writing compelling characters that are flawed, resilient, and can be broken, but can still hope. It’s a beautiful play that I hope to see on stage one day.
In the meantime, it was a privilege to see it live-streamed. This is a play that, while the cast did amazing work (and kudos to the director, Reginald Richard, and stage manager, P. Vanessa Losida, for beautiful coordination in the live reading), would be even more alive on stage.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Show Advisory: Adult language; drug use; sexual situations; probably best for 16 and up.
“Wannabe” premiered on Jul 23 on 4615 Theatre Company’s Facebook page from Bethesda, MD. For more information and to view the production, please click here.