Troubling events occur in every family’s life, and the results often lead in unexpected directions, at times triumphant and liberating and at other times crushing and destructive. How we deal with these often daring adventures are the stuff of the choices we make in navigating through the world around us.
Trilogy II by Garry Batson, directed by Evria Ince-Waldron, is three one-act plays depicting the struggles of African-American families faced with difficult and troubling events. The good and bad things that happen seem random or unfair. According to Batson, the common link among the stories is the clash between good and evil. However, except for Fort Knox, the remaining two plays, Flight Risk and Ill Winds, focus on aspects of good and bad, not specifically evil. For this reviewer, something evil is an extreme form of bad because not all bad things are necessarily evil.
Eugene Daniels is the lead in all of the plays, effectively inhabiting different characters with Nicole Marie Hunt, Matthew Watson, Brocton Pierce, William Abbott, Gina-Simone Pemberton, Jacob Quinn, Jeancarlos Aponte, Crystal Williamson, Chris Terrell, and Khalilah Daye as various supporting characters in each.
While the entire ensemble gives creditable readings in their various roles, there are a few notable performances. As the local drunk Lou in Fort Knox, William Abbott delivers lines that help cement the reality of the primary setting of the play, Lair’s barbershop. Matthew Watson is exceptional in Ill Winds playing the muscular dystrophic son of a drug-addict boxer. His characterization is a powerfully realistic portrayal of someone with muscular dystrophy.
The first play Fort Knox is a story about a young romance that leads one apparently good family into a confrontation with a decidedly evil family. Lair (Eugene Daniels) is a barber in an urban, mainly African-American neighborhood. His shop is a gathering place for a regular group of men from the area. The conversation among these men gives a sense of time and place. We see Lair as a good man who treats everyone fairly. The conversations also reveal Lair as a numbers runner for the Italian mob.
As Lair is closing the shop, a somewhat disheveled woman, Bonnie (Crystal Williamson), enters and introduces the dramatic center of the play, an accusation that Lloyd (Matthew Watson), Lair’s 18-year-old son, got her 12-year-old daughter Glee (Khalilah Daye) pregnant. Lair disagrees. She tells him that she will return later with her husband. Lair confronts Lloyd with the information about Glee. He says he had sex with her, but so did others. Lair asks the meaning of the comment, and Lloyd says there is something sinister about her family.
The following day, Lair’s wife Margie (Nicole Marie Hunt) is shaving him when Lloyd and Glee enter. Glee reveals the scars and bruises of the abuse inflicted by her parents and brother. Shortly after the reveal, her father and mother enter the shop, confront Lair and his family, and demand that Glee return to her parents. The situation turns ugly and does not end well for Lair or for Glee’s parents.
This story clearly distinguishes between what is good and what is evil with strong performances by the principal cast and supporting cast. In the first scene, William Abbott plays Lou, a local drunk. His character establishes the barbershop as an accepting and comfortable neighborhood gathering place, an important element as the story unfolds.
I have issues with Daniels’ characterization of Lair. When he shows Lair’s disagreement with the conversations in the shop, there is a tendency to overact by shouting his lines. This action is also evident in the other two plays. While Ince-Waldron’s direction is generally sound in all of the plays, it is the director’s responsibility to help an actor find the rhythm and balance of a character’s emotional responses.
Flight Risk is a story about a couple, Steven (Eugene Daniels) and Lori (Nicole Marie Hunt), who are leaving on a trip to Spain. Everything is fine for them until they get to the airport security check-in. Lori is cleared, but Steven is not because he is considered a flight risk due to an outstanding felony warrant. Lori wants to stay to help him fix the issue, but he insists that she go ahead and he will catch up when he gets everything cleared up. Lori leaves, and Steven is handcuffed and taken to a holding area.
There are three men in the holding area: Jose (Jeancarlos Aponte), a Hispanic man; Lee (Matthew Watson), possibly African American; and Yehuda (Jacob Quinn), an orthodox Jewish man. Steven tells them he is a “flight risk” because of an outstanding felony warrant related to a mistaken bank transfer. He asks the others for the reasons they are being held. Jose says he tried to get into the country with a fake passport. Lee says that he and Yehuda fought with two men who called themselves “Proud Boys” after they said racist and anti-Semitic things to them and spat on them. They discuss the implications of the fight from a religious perspective, one Old Testament told by Yehuda and the other Muslim told by Steven. They both point out how much the concept of a common peaceful origin has been corrupted. Steven is asked to go with some agents to have his issues worked out.
As the agents lead Steven from the holding area, there is a commotion in the area. It turns out a plane crashed, and it was the one headed to Spain with Lori on it. One of the agents mentions that it may have been sabotage. There are no survivors. Steven is devastated by the news and is trying to get the agents to listen. Unfortunately, they are not paying attention to his cries when a man appears. His name is Tony (Brocton Pierce), and he happens to be Lori’s brother. His first reaction is to make a judgment about Steven being in handcuffs, and then he learns that his sister was on the plane that crashed. Steven, at that point, collapses to the floor.
Flight Risk is the weakest of the three plays. There is no development of the idea that what the men in the holding cell are dealing with involves bad behavior. They each state what the issue is and then move to a superficial discussion of what it all means to them. While the plane crash is bad for Steven, it is unclear what caused it. Was it an arbitrary event or an act of terrorism? The appearance of Lori’s brother makes no sense. He simply appears when Steven is being moved and after Steven has learned that Lori has died.
Ill Winds tells the story of Al (Eugene Daniels), a drug-addicted prize fighter, Gladys (Gina-Simone Pemberton), his wife, and John (Matthew Watson), their teenage muscular dystrophic son. The primary plot is Gladys’ attempts to get John into a group home for children with disabilities and Al’s resistance to the idea. Gladys is concerned that John is not getting the care he needs, both physically and emotionally. In addition, he is missing out on socializing with other children, and the group home will allow him to make friends and grow emotionally. An additional essential element to the story is Al’s recurring, intense headaches. He dismisses them as not a serious thing.
Al’s opposition to the idea is complicated by his drug addiction and lack of a steady job. John is caught in the middle of this disagreement between his parents. He tends to side with his father because he thinks his mother doesn’t love him since she does not appear to be his primary support. Gladys invites Mr. Donaldson (Brocton Pierce) from the group home to visit and explain their services. He leaves papers for Al and Gladys to fill out. One day, after Gladys goes to work, Al takes John and moves out.
While Al is doing a workout at the gym, and he is talking with Fred (William Abbott), his trainer, about setting up some matches to earn extra money, he has a headache. Fred tells him he should get it checked and that it will not be safe to box. Fred ends up offering Al an opportunity to sell drugs, which he accepts.
Sometime later, Gladys finds out where Al has moved and shows up on Thanksgiving. She is there to see John and to see how he is doing. She is also trying to get Al to get help for John. After an uncomfortable meal, Gladys leaves with the issues unresolved. The next day, Al goes out to sell drugs on the street by his apartment. John sees him grab his head and collapse onto the street. He calls his mother for help. Al dies, and Gladys and John begin to develop a better relationship.
The performances are well-tuned to the characters showing the good and bad aspects of their personalities, but the idea of good and evil is again not clearly developed. Al made bad choices in his life, but those choices are not evil. Illicit drugs themselves are not evil. It is the idea that they may cause bad things to happen, some of which may be evil, that is the reality, and that is not clearly addressed.
Trilogy II (through April 2, 2023)
Daniels Productions in association with Phoenix Arts, Inc.
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call (212) 777-1767 or visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/trilogy-ii-fort-knox-flight-risk-ill-winds-tickets-430422032887
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including two intermissions