In 2018, Angela Wilson’s play about the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968 first debuted as part of the Angelwing Project in Anne Arundel County, MD. Angela Wilson is a founder and president of the project, as well as a director and playwright. Her play was recently produced in partnership with Globe Online for streaming.
The play is set in the last few months the Reverend Martin Luther King’ Jr.’s life when he was very involved in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. The Vietnam War also plays a small role as the oldest Barnes’ son returns home halfway home from his tour of duty. Told through the eyes and hearts of the Barnes family and their friends, it is has some fine moments, particularly among the male characters. This is a writer who can get to the heart of Black men and bring their power, humanity, and foibles beautifully, and heartbreakingly, alive.
Its depiction of turbulent times, and the higher price that families and people of color pay in those times for merely existing, sadly remains horribly relevant in 2020. These families are on the verge of losing everything, simply for trying to hold the country to its promise of equality.
Almost all of the action takes place in the Barnes’ living room, and the direction is nearly flawless in an online environment. Wilson, who also directed, had the same backdrop for each of the actors in nearly every scene and watching the play against the backdrop of the domestic front was highly effective.
The family’s and friends’ personal crises mirror the upheaval — you feel the penny-pinching, the increasing desperation of families about to lose homes, cars, and possessions, and the rising anger of the younger generation at the incremental pace of any change. Vivian Barnes (a worried Joelle Denise) and Fred Barnes (Pierre Walters) as the mother and father of James (Quincy Vicks), Gina (Leah Mallory), and Dexter (Devin Jerome King), stand in for the older generation urging nonviolence. Walters is particularly good at articulating how hard it is for a Black man to follow a path of peace in the never-ending face of hatred, threats, and constant assaults — both micro and macro. Ida Mae (Regina Gail Mallory), Vivian’s mother, lives with them.
Turner Davis (Robert Freemon) and Maxine Davis (Michal Roxie Johncon) are the family’s closest friends. Other characters include Eileen Bridgewater (Lori Brooks), a white organizer working with the Black community and Sonny (Devyn Tinker) and Brandi (Leslie Barnett) who are young, Black power organizers influencing the younger Barnes siblings, James and Gina. (She’s a frighteningly intelligent girl and I wanted to know her future). Finally, Dr. Gregory W. Branch plays Pastor Thompson, who loves Ida Mae’s meatloaf.
I wanted to love this play and, for the first few scenes, I did. But, perhaps in an effort to pack in a lot of background on the times and competing philosophies of Dr. King and Malcom X, the expository scenes grew. They were educational, but created a bit of distance in the emotional impact on being privy to the private lives of the people who intimately lived that turbulence.
There was one scene that was jarring but quite effective. It was a quick scene with all of the characters speaking at once and the cacophony grew until we were drowning in sound and just wanted to clap our hands over our ears. Without preaching at us, it made the point very well. No one is listening to anyone else. Without listening to each other and finding some common humanity, nothing will change.
This is an ambitious work. By concentrating on one family and their inner circle, it brought home the despair of the Black experience in America in 1968 and beyond. Unfortunately, the ending was very rosy and while it was heart-warming to see everyone bonding and smiling, it didn’t quite ring true. It was too pat and Hollywood-ready.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and five minutes.