On Friday, Staff Writer Grace Novarr attended CU BTE’s Facebook livestream of a new play by Cris Eli Blak.
At 2 PM on Friday, I took a welcome break from working on the two papers I had due at the end of the day to attend Columbia University Black Theater Ensemble’s Sons of Liberty, a staged reading of a new play by Cris Eli Blak. The reading was streamed over Facebook and directed by Madison Hatchett.
Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a staged reading that took place on Zoom, but I was impressed by the effectiveness with which the cast managed to convey the difficult emotions and shifting dynamics of the play, even within the limited format.
Sons of Liberty focuses on George (Kay Kemp, CC ‘22), a currently unemployed Iraqi veteran, and George’s younger brother Barry (Blessing Utomi, CC’22), who is working to pay the bills that support them and the house in New Orleans that they’ve lived in all their lives. At the outset of the play, we learn that a big storm is approaching, but at first, Barry is more concerned with his date with Eve (Brianna Johnson BC ‘21), a more “bougie” woman. Eve spends the night with Barry, but the next morning, she and George have an emotional conversation about George’s past as a soldier that culminates in her kissing him. Barry, unaware of this, is head-over-heels for Eve and tries to get her to move in with them, angering George.
Later, Lenny (Lucas Gomes CC’21), George’s former close friend from the army, shows up out of the blue. George reveals to Eve that he has cancer, possibly as a result of his heavy drinking, but says he doesn’t want Barry to find out. The storm – which we now learn is Hurricane Katrina – is getting closer, so Barry urges George to leave town with him and Eve, but George refuses to leave the house that he is so attached to. The final scene is the day of George’s funeral, as Eve, Barry, and Lenny sit together, mourning and reflecting on a man who meant a lot to all of them in different ways.
Even within the confines of a Zoom box, the performances were nuanced and powerful – I found myself tearing up at several points throughout the show, a testament to the skill with which the actors seemed to really inhabit their characters. Kemp, especially, was masterful as George: they effectively switched from being light-hearted with Barry at the beginning of the play to serious and tormented with Eve while maintaining the continuity of George’s character.
In scenes between Barry and George, the two actors were skillful at maneuvering between a friendly, fraternal dynamic and a more serious, urgent dynamic in a way that felt real and relatable. Kemp portrayed George as someone trying to conceal a lot of pain, which exploded through in George’s final scene, when George yells at the darkening sky: “See if you can blow me away!… Send me to my mother and father, I’m already halfway there.”
Johnson, as Eve, also gave a great performance, exhibiting both strength and tenderness as she alternately fought off Barry’s desperate attempts to romance her and tried to come to understand George. The play ends with Eve playing George’s guitar, sitting in the same spot he used to sit, singing a song she once sang to him. Here, Johnson’s voice was clear yet full of emotion, bringing me to tears (for the umpteenth time during the performance).
Utomi, as the cheerful, optimistic Barry, was relatable and moving in his attempts to support the brother he ultimately couldn’t save. Gomes’ Lenny was startlingly upbeat, which at first felt incongruous with his role, but I later came to appreciate the foil that Lenny provided for George. It heightened the disturbing factor when Lenny talked about having PTSD dreams in the same cheerful tone that he used to describe his new wife and baby.
I really appreciated the “staging” of this play; it never felt distracting when characters appeared or disappeared from the screen, and the stage directions, read by Stage Manager Mia Flowers (BC ‘23) did enough to set the scene without the characters needing to use props or green-screen backgrounds. Some of the actors did have completely black backgrounds, while some just used their home as their background, but the effect wasn’t particularly distracting.
Overall, Sons of Liberty was powerful and skillfully done. The emotional tone of the play shifted around without slipping into melodrama or banality, and the actors brought life and commitment into the characters. While watching the play, I briefly forgot about my life as a college student in New York, and became immersed in the story of the Bradley brothers and, by extension, what America looked and felt like in 2005.
Image via Grace’s MacBook Air.