Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009

Hansberry Sands' What Would Jesus Do?

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company opens its season with a production of Yvette Heyliger’s progressive drama What Would Jesus Do? Addressing the often taboo subject of AIDS in the African-American community, the play has received a substantial amount of critical acclaim since it debuted a couple of years back.

Marrian Caldwell-Parker stars as Leonta Wilson—a woman who has been exposed to HIV through an extramarital encounter her husband John (Lloyd Roseman) had engaged in. The drama opens in church. In an energetic gospel service, we are introduced to the Wilson family and the community that it’s a part of. It’s a very tight-knit community. The Wilsons and their daughter Kieta (Shahira Parker) are a very close family. Though there is an undeniable energy in the opening church scene, the drama doesn’t really pick-up until John confronts his wife on a homosexual experience he’d had some time ago . . . one in which he’d contracted HIV.

The drama here isn’t as intense as it could be . . . and the idea of contracted HIV from a homosexual experience feels a bit weak. One imagines a married man getting HIV in a much more complicated way, but it’s through this fairly simple (almost hackneyed) introduction of the central conflict that things proceed to get very, very complicated.  That initial confrontation between Leonta and her husband doesn’t quite fit together evenly. The complex dynamic between Caldwell-Parker and Roseman never quite materializes enough to make the conflict feel completely authentic.

The first bit of dialogue with compelling intensity makes it to the stage as Wilson discusses her situation with Arthur Hall--the church’s new pastor. Pastor Hall has some of the best lines in the play and Johnson delivers them with a heartfelt reality. Numerous situations in the script illustrates the complexity of sexuality in a tight-knit community. In  the character of Pastor Hall, we see a straightforward verbal articulation of those things that many of th other plot elements are merely attempting to illustrate. The script is far from perfect, but it is a provocative illustration of the problems faced by African Americans with HIV.

The majority of the emotional intensity in the Hansberry-Sands production of the play comes in the form of monologues delivered during a woman’s day presentation at the church. Heyliger has written some really interesting monologues that bring across some of the problems with religion, health care and the social stigma attached to sexuality and HIV. The single most intense moments in the play come from the character of John Wilson, finally confronting the church with homosexuality in a very public and open way. Roseman puts in the single best performance of the entire production in that monologue. John is the antithesis of the vision of a persecuted homosexual man found so often in plays attempting to open people to the idea of equality for gays. He is a deeply flawed person who has made some mistakes, but he’s in church asking for forgiveness like any other Christian. His sexuality will almost ensure that he will get none from the church he has been a part of. In spite of his mistakes, he ends up coming across far more sympathetically than any other character in the play. Roseman’s performance is intense. The conflict. The passion. The frustration. Roseman filters it all into a really, really powerful monologue at the end of the play. That monologue makes up for any flaws that may plague the rest of the production. Roseman’s monologue at the end of the play makes this a production worth seeing.

Hansberry-Sands’
production of What Would Jesus Do? Runs through September 26th at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall.

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