This review of Charles Cissel's Wallop at The Robert Moss Theatre at 440 Studios was written by Nickolaus Hines and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Charles Cissel
Directed by Robin A. Paterson
Dramaturgy by Karen Brown
The Robert Moss Theater at 440 Studios
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor
New York, New York 10003
The three-part stage is already heating up on the left side of The Robert Moss Theater before the audience has even taken their seat. Three men in boxing gear are working out, their bodies glistening with sweat as late 80s hip hop pulsates over the speakers. Finally, an Ice Cube song starts up and two of the men start sparring in the ring while the other man directs from the floor. Starting en medias res of a sparring match sets an appropriate tone for the rest of the play. Back and forth, the characters are constantly sparring with fists and words. Someone is at someone else's throat at all points, and tensions rise quicker than they diffuse.
In the middle of all of the chaos and fighting is Gracie, played by Angelica Gregory, who steals the show. Gracie is the youngest, and only girl, in this black family. She struggles to accept her situation and circumstances. Her brother, Ivan, played by Duane N. Cooper, brings his new white friend Sam, played by Benjamin Katz, into the late 1980s Harlem. "Man oh man, walking along 125th Street. Bad idea," is one of Katz's first lines. "I'll pretend I'm not a white guy." If that line alone didn't cue the audience to how race tensions will play out, Ivan's father Joe, played by Jay Ward, and brother Mitch, played by Temesgen Tocruray, iron out any further questions.
Despite being set nearly 30 years in the past, the pain, curiosity and questions about race are just as relevant today. Rather than seeing more differences in this representation of the past, there are more similarities in today's world where #BlackLivesMatter was needed as a rallying point for tragedy after tragedy, and #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter arose from a segment of the population losing their stranglehold on American culture and politics.
As if the issue of race wasn't already a large enough issue for writer Charles Cissel and director Robin A. Paterson to tackle, there is also the conflict of divorced families, with the new dad, Jesus, played by Wilton Guzman, being disrespected and referred to as Step. There's also conflict between a younger generation of dreamers and an older generation that is more practical and realistic. Also, thanks to being carried almost entirely on the shoulders of Gregory and the mother figure Suzy, played by Zuhairah, there's the conflict of women's rights and their role in the family.
It's all a lot to take in and a lot to think about. It's controversial, confrontational, and aggressive. What it isn't, however, is dull, overly serious or too heavily supported by easy stereotypes. All of the characters are strong and complex. Most have monologues that crack open the door inside their brain and allows a few shouts of internal conflict to escape. The lines of the monologues reflect more than just the characters' problems. They are also a vignette of the time period. Unfortunately, those vignettes of the turbulent late 1980s are all too familiar and relatable to today.
But don't think for a second that Wallop is all doom and gloom and serious pondering on the nature of society. It's comical in its representation of conflict, and laced in between it all is an on-your-toes Romeo and Juliet-style love story.
Gregory"s Gracie is a commanding female in a male-dominated world who tells it how it is and doesn't take anything sitting down. Tocruray's Mitch just wants to banter and won't respect anyone, notably Katz's character, who doesn't give it back. Cooper's Ivan is so inherently likeable that it's hard not to hang on his every word. Sure, Guzman's Jesus and Ward's Joe represent some of the worst black father stereotypes, but they also give and take and expose themselves as men with deeper dimensions and a warrior spirit. Zuhairah's Suzy is happy-go-lucky as long as you don't disrespect her house, and Katz's Sam is so white at points that it hurts, but at least he's trying.
It's impossible not to love Wallop and its endless entertainment. The balance of deep pain and comedic relief is the mirror that society needs to address the hate and violence of today. I hope more people go to see this play. It stayed entertaining without being too preachy about the need for social change.
Wallop runs through October 31, 2015, Wednesdays through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $18.00 and are available at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444.