Playwright Peter DeAnda’s script takes a straightforward presentational approach that has Powell addressing the audience. The framing device is of him in retirement in Bimini recalling key events.
Due to Mr. DeAnda’s expert research and schematic construction, it’s an informative and interesting 65 minutes, but lacking in depth. DeAnda hasn’t provided enough conflict in his catalogue of incidents, and at times the script is a simple recitation. This hinders the production from rising beyond basically being a greatest hits type of event.
In his later years, Powell was a divisive political figure with questionable ethics, but DeAnda’s representation of him is purely positive. We’re left with the view that a racist cabal drove him out of office with little possibility that his downfall was self-inflicted. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Still, his charisma, political activism and historical importance are depicted.
With slicked back hair, a melodiously rough voice and a smooth physical presence, Timothy Simonson offers an accurate impression of Powell that captures his swagger. Mr. Simonson’s appealing performance forcefully recounts Powell’s rise and fall with histrionic relish. Simonson is particularly stirring when describing the hardscrabble life of Powell’s father from poverty in Virginia to prominence and wealth as a minister in New York City.
Director Ajene D. Washington’s staging is basic but energetic, and coordinates Simonson’s performance with the technical elements into an engaging presentation.
Wrapped around the small stage are gorgeous film noirish paintings of a cityscape composed of skyscrapers and a gray sky. It’s the highlight of Chris Cumberbatch’s moody scenic design that otherwise consists of a few furnishings.
On a semi-circular screen behind Simonson are shown the illustrative images of Bill Toles’ inspired projection design. Black and white images of the countryside, Harlem and New York City streets, Washington, D.C., and of the ocean are all visually woven into the narrative. Mr. Toles’ sound design proficiently blends in music and effects.
The lighting design of Antoinette Tynes appropriately ranges from brightness for the Bahamas scenes to a shadowy texture for much of the action.
A jaunty sea captain’s cap and a Hawaiian shirt for Powell’s retirement and a crisp, black suit for the rest of his activities are the fine pieces of Kathy Roberson’s costume design.
Born of racially mixed parents in 1908, Powell grew up in New York City. He graduated from Colgate University and later received an M.A from Columbia University in religious education. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. After helping his father there, Powell became a prominent community organizer in the 1930’s, leading boycotts of businesses that forced them to hire African-American workers.
He was elected to the New York City Council in 1941, and to the United States Congress in 1944, representing Harlem until 1971. After 15 years, he became chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
A fierce advocate for Civil Rights, he often clashed with other congressional leaders. In the 1960’s he was accused of mismanagement of committee, excessive foreign travel and absenteeism. Many people, including Powell believed that he was persecuted for his outspokenness on racial issues, and that his behavior was similar to others in Congress.
Adam somewhat restores Powell’s faded luster through its accomplished production and Simonson’s excellent performance.
Adam (through March 12, 2017)
New Federal Theatre
Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-941-1234 or visit http://www.castillo.org
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission