The Light begins like an upscale romantic comedy of the old school: in a beautiful and expensive condo in Chicago’s gentrified and diverse Hyde Park community, Rashad, a firefighter who once had dreams of going from college football to the NFL, prepares his two-year anniversary surprises for Genesis, the principal of an all-black charter school, including a wedding ring and a marriage proposal.
When Gen returns to her condo, she is exhausted from her day at school. On the day that the Senate is to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, Gen has had to deal with a troubling incident at school. Her newest and best teacher Cindy, who happens to be white and apparently a conservative, has posted on Instagram, “I Stand with Brett,” and her other teachers demand that Gen fire her. Rashad agrees with them citing it as yet another case of the abuses of white privilege, but Gen points out it was not posted during school hours, Cindy did not use school equipment or break any of the school rules, so that is out of the question.
Thus begins an uneasy evening that both Rashad and Gen were looking forward to celebrating their anniversary. With a comfortable rapport, each teases the other about having forgotten a gift but this is not so. Each has two presents: Rashad proposes even though they had agreed to wait longer and he has bought VIP tickets for the concert by Raitima (Gen’s favorite singer) at Chicago Union Park, a very hot item. Unfortunately, it is actually part of the “Heal the Chi” concert hosted by Kashif, a one-named fictional Chicago rapper and admired local activist and humanitarian. Gen has told Rashad in the past that she finds his lyrics misogynistic and that he can’t listen to Kashif’s music around her.
What he doesn’t yet know is that her dislike goes much deeper: she knew Kashif as an undergraduate at college and he raped one of her friends. As the classmate never reported the assault, he has never been charged. Rashad refuses to believe it claiming that black men are also suspected of crimes that they did not commit and wanting to give Kashif the benefit of the doubt. Gen counters with the claim that black women have it worse both by being black and female, and what if it had been Rashad’s wife, mother or daughter. After Gen reminds Rashad about his feelings in the Kavanaugh hearing, more of the story spills out with Rashad having to apologize for his insensitive opinions though he has a shocking story of his own to tell. However, the damage is done and Gen says she is through – although they have more reasons to stay together than to part. But this is only the beginning of their battle.
With the audience sitting ringside on three sides of the new theater, and performed by Masden and Belcher at the top of their game, The Light is thrilling theater. Their Gen and Rashad are both sympathetic, attractive characters and their story and their dilemma is entirely gripping. As the former football star (and a boxing pro in The Royale seen at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater,) Belcher has a tremendous physical presence. Masden is so articulate as the school principal that she elevates the debate to a high level of drama. Even if there are coincidences or sudden revelations that are hard to believe, this play that makes use of the themes of both the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements is cracklingly provocative theater. And like an excellent boxing match, director Vaughn has her actors come out ready to spar from the moment they enter the stage.
Kimie Nishikawa’s attractive and modern garden apartment, with its African and African-American art work and leafy view out of the casement window, is exactly right for the initial rom-com atmosphere but quickly becomes a battleground for the two protagonists. The costumes by Emilio Sosa are entirely fitting for the firefighter on his day off and the principal coming home from a long day at work. The excessively bright lighting by Ben Stanton puts Gen and Rashad – and the audience – under the scalpel, so to speak. Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design includes the right music for this contemporary, upscale story.
Loy A. Webb’s debut play demonstrates that not only has she a unique voice, but she has the ability to tell a dramatic new story, seemingly ripped from the headlines and make it soar. Director Logan Vaughn who has worked somewhat under the radar in recent years proves to also be a theater person to watch in the coming seasons. From their performances here, McKinley Belcher III and Mandi Masden prove they are two engaging actors with a wide range from whom to expect great things in the future.
The Light (through March 17, 2019)
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-506-9393 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: one hour and 15 minutes with no intermission