It’s a sad (if not chilling) commentary on the state of current (if not recurrent) affairs that Paris Crayton III, artistic director of the new Rising Sage Theatre, initially wrote his one-act drama “Chainz” in response to protests stemming from the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. What’s more, by the time it eventually opened last week, the play had assumed the added significance of also addressing the ongoing turmoil surrounding the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown.
In the theoretically fictional “Chainz,” directed for Rising Sage by the fine Atlanta actor Eric J. Little, another unarmed young black man has been gunned down in circumstances that incite and divide public opinion along racial lines. The setting is a holding cell in the police station of an unnamed city, but the situation reflects the lingering prejudices of American society at large.
The characters are a cross section of archetypes who’ve been detained for questioning about their involvement in a community rally-turned-riot, four men who seem to have little in common beyond their race: a smug upper-class professional (Kenneth Camp II); a self-hating “thug” (Na’Jahri Atkins); a sensitive young father (Justin Smith); and a homeless “bum” and voice of reason (Carlus Houston).
If his pleasantries and affirmations often make him sound like a “walking fortune cookie” to the others, they are no less versed in articulating their own varied attitudes and philosophies. A lot of impassioned dialogue ensues between them about passing judgments on one another and standing up for a cause, about black men as an “endangered species” that still feels enslaved in invisible chains — occasionally making the characters feel more like theatrical mouthpieces than ordinary people.
The generally unfamiliar ensemble is solid enough; Smith’s moment on the phone with his son is an emotional highlight. Little’s staging moves at a crisp, fluid pace. Most effectively, their interrogation scenes overlap and unfold simultaneously, with certain words from one conversation cuing the use of the same words in another. Most regrettably, on opening night, a technical glitch involving a video screen at the back of the set proved to be a constant distraction.
Marking the close of Rising Sage’s inaugural season, “Chainz” appears on a double bill with another Crayton one-act, “Broken,” in which five women recount their tragic experiences losing a child to gun violence. Under the economical direction of Mia Kristin Smith, four of the five roles have been double cast (again with relative unknowns): Britny Horton appears in both, while Dionna Davis alternates performances with Sherry Richards, Tunisia S. North with Rachel L. Jordan, Tanya Freeman with Kymoura Kennedy and Jimmica A. Collins with Brittany Inge.
Each of the characters takes her turn at center stage, telling her anguished story directly to the audience, which imbues the drama with a greater sense of intimacy and universality. “Chainz” is no less intense in its flashier way, but where it’s essentially a play about four black men, “Broken” is about five women and mothers with whom anyone can identify and relate — regardless of gender, creed, national origin or, yes, even race.
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