Each person on the subway has a story. And in the most diverse of diverse cities, New York’s main transit system offers the main insight into that heterogeneity, it being the point where a plethora of ethnicities, backgrounds, and class share, however momentarily, the same space. The melting pot that is New York City’s subway system serves as the focal point for Subway Story (A Shooting).
Subway Story (A Shooting) is the fifth and final installment of William Electric Black’s Gunplay Series, a sequence of plays “dedicated to all who have lost their lives to the senseless gun violence plague.” In this concluding chapter, ongoing gun violence, particularly its link to urban youths, is the prevailing theme. Black is a seven-time Emmy award-winning writer. His work often broaches societal-conscious issues.
The play centers around Chevonn (Sarah Q. Shah), an African-American school girl struggling both at home and school. Her abusive mother (Jacqueline Nwabueze) offers little in terms of familial support, while an apathy towards academic coursework leaves her on the brink of failing the year. Her English teacher (Levern Williams) offers her a final opportunity to pass the course – a work of nonfiction. It is Chevonn’s experience on the subway, depicted in her nonfiction coursework, that structures the plot of the play.
This narrative offers an insight into the realities of being poor, alienated and oppressed in New York City. These variables lend themselves to violence and, as Black’s play addresses, this violence is perpetuating. The abuse Chevonn suffers at the hands of her mother is akin to the experience the latter endured with her own mother. The audience is introduced to Chevonn at the point where her desperation has reached murderous tendencies: she is spending her time on the subway looking for a gun to kill her mother. Chevonn’s turmoil is depicted brilliantly by Shah. With every word spoken, more blurred is the line between actress and character.
As the story progresses, we learn more about the other subway riders she encounters. In particular, there is the transgender boy (Natalie Marie Martino) and the veteran (Brandon Mellette); at first glance, it seems they share little in common with Chevonn. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that their violent tendencies have, like Chevonn’s, stemmed from their own experiences with violence, rejection and oppression in a society that is slow to accept them, and quick to reject them. How these protagonists respectively deal with these experiences ultimately dictates the direction of the piece.
In keeping the audience on edge throughout, the perpetuating aspect of violence as a theme is depicted splendidly by the actors. It is the mark of great acting when the audience is rendered sympathetic even to those behaving wayward, aggressive, and threatening. In addition, Black emphasizes this theme of violence with reference to contemporary events, such as the shootings that took place in Sandy Hook in 2012, and Las Vegas in 2017. The question is posed: When will this end?
Set designers Mark Marcante and Lytza Colon and costume designer Susan Hemley offer a credible reimagination of the New York subway for the stage. As the audience members filter in, each is greeted by individuals – musicians, MTA staff, hipsters, and entertainers – oft encountered underground. The play opens in a cramped subway carriage, all the characters herded together in the spotlight on the small, rectangular stage. The humming of the train is heard, as are the announcements commuters are so used to hearing: Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Scenes in the piece are superseded by referential sketches to the subway like this throughout. These are funny, comforting, and offer needed respite from the darker aspects of the play. Moreover, it is clear a huge amount of coordination and practice was put into these scenes, often including the whole cast.
Subway Story (A Shooting) dabbles with physical theater, and although it is a valiant effort, it is the play’s main downfall. Jeremy Lardieri’s dancing homage to Michael Jackson as an MTA employee is a highlight, but other components of physical communication feel at odds with the flow of the story and come across a tad frantic. As a result, the play drags at times, and may have been more polished if shorter, and without any of the physical nuances. Nevertheless, it is productions like this where writers can, and should, experiment. Perhaps, as the run continues, Black, as director, will have time to hone in on this aspect of the production.
A subway ride is a journey, a unique venue where a diverse conglomerate of people can be seen on a recurring basis. Subway Story (A Shooting) is an offering that poses questions of the audience, laying bare an ongoing societal problem that is playing out before our eyes daily. Shah is a highlight, where the rest of the ensemble coordinate to produce a piece that compliments Black’s poignant script. If, at times, a bit drawn-out, one leaves feeling reflective which, ultimately, makes the piece a success.
Subway Story (A Shooting) (through March 18, 2018)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission