Where’s the heat?
That question began resounding in my head as I watched the world-premiere production of Nathan Louis Jackson’s “Brother Toad,” the most recent work from Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s resident playwright.
Presented as part of the Rep’s annual New Works Festival, this production marks the fourth Jackson play seen by Rep audiences. The first was “Broke-ology,” an affecting family drama about an African-American widower and his two adult sons in Kansas City, Kan. By the time local audiences saw it the show had already received its world premiere at Lincoln Center. The work was a mixed bag of big plusses and a few minuses, but the portrait of human frailty by a playwright new to the national scene was well received.
Next came “When I Come to Die,” a powerful prison drama focused on the profound philosophical questions faced by a death-row prisoner who miraculously survives execution by lethal injection. It, too, was first produced in New York under the auspices of Lincoln Center. There was no shortage of heat in the Rep production, thanks to a superior cast and meticulous direction.
The Rep next produced the world-premiere of Jackson’s “Sticky Traps,” an ill-conceived mishmash of competing themes involving race, suicide, sexuality, religious intolerance and a “what’s the matter with Kansas” topicality. It was dramatically confused and felt half-baked.
Now comes “Brother Toad,” an extended one-act that portrays the impact of gun violence on an African-American family in Kansas City. Staged in a workmanlike but uninspired manner by Melissa Crespo, the show depicts the state line as a real and metaphorical divide. Randall (David Samuel), a successful radio sports call-in host, and his pregnant wife Shayna (Shon Ruffin), a children’s puppeteer and storyteller, have just moved to the relative safety of Johnson County. Randall’s sister Janelle (Shamika Cotton) and her teenage son Marques (Donovan Woods), are still on the Missouri side.
As the play opens we learn that Marques has been wounded and his best friend killed by a white guy who claims a “stand your ground” defense. Jackson includes only sketchy details about this encounter and therefore poses questions without answers for a local audience: Where did it happen? In a play littered with local references, you wonder why this was not addressed.
Shayna helps organize a march against gun violence but Janelle is reluctant to attend and Marques is undecided. Marques, who hopes to get into Stanford, is focused on an upcoming speech tournament. Meanwhile, Randall’s pal Chris (Jude Tibeau), a karate expert who owns firearms and believes in self-defense, is prepared to sell Randall a handgun if he wants one.
After a series of debates on gun rights and responsibilities, the play ends on an inconclusive, elliptical note. This is entirely appropriate considering the tenor of our never-ending debate about guns. But the inference is clear: In a country awash in lethal weapons, people will die.
Point taken, but this production simply lacks tension. For a show that is literally about life and death, you have to wonder why the stakes never feel very high. The actors deliver heartfelt performances, although as an ensemble they seem far too laid back. The best work is registered by the two KC-based players, Ruffin and Woods. Ruffin is a gifted comic actress although she’s fully capable of turning up the dramatic heat. And Woods brings his considerable charm and charisma to the central role of Marques (despite seeming far too cheerful for someone who just got shot.)
Jackson is a unique among local playwrights. He was born and raised in KCK and despite considerable success in New York and Hollywood, he makes his home here. He writes plays set specifically in this community that reflect the African-American experience. I want him to succeed, as all theater supporters should. But this play feels unfinished and tentative, which makes you wonder whether a few too many bureaucratic obstacles may have encumbered the Rep’s playwright-in-residence.
“Brother Toad” runs in repertory with “Fear City” by Kara Lee Corthron through May 27 at Copaken Stage at 13th and Walnut. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.