FringeNYC has been up and running again after a year’s hiatus. It has come roaring back with experimental theater offerings and thought-provoking presentations. One intriguing production out of the 85 or so offered ended its predominately sold-out run on Sunday, 21 October. Among the other productions, it’s a standout and bears revisiting. Onaje, written by Robert Bowie, Jr. and searingly directed by Pat Golden sported a large cast with sterling performances. Overall, the play’s themes resound with currency in this time of social and political divisiveness and hyper rhetoric not witnessed since the early 20th century.
The play takes place in the 1980s. However, the flashbacks that infuse and haunt the mind of the protagonist William/Onaje take place earlier. Onaje/William (portrayed with mesmerizing power and spot-on immediacy by Curtis M. Jackson), suffers a miserable fate. Indeed, a traumatic event that happened during the 1967 Maryland riots affects him emotionally and chains him to a bondage of self-recrimination. Sadly, racism and bigotry force him to leave his loving family (the fine Jay Ward, Mary E. Hodges, Tinuke Adetunji).
Dislocated from his former life as a result of this event, fear drives William to seek refuge and healing on the open road. Subsequently, he attempts to evolve beyond the tragic events of the past by creating another persona, Onaje. It is Onaje that Bowie, Jr. introduces us to at the play’s opening. And as the play unfolds, we learn about the devastating events that might have driven a less enlightened person than William/Onaje to suicide or murder.
Through his interactions with fellow travelers, the couple Richard and Belle, the revelation of Onaje’s humanity unfolds. Richard (Adam Couperthwaite in a dynamic and edgy performance), and Belle (the feisty, humorous, down-to-earth Sheila Joon Ostadazim), are happy Onaje accompanies them on their road trip.
Apparently, Onaje has traveled the highways of the United States since he left his family on the Eastern shore of Maryland fifteen years ago. Unbeknownst to Onaje, fate has thrown him in with this couple, and he will accompany them to return him full circle to the place of the traumatic experience. Ironically, Richard and he come from the same area. Because Richard intends to settle his accounts with his father and seek affirmation, he must return home. But Richard’s father, Middleman Sr. (Bristol Pomeroy), witnessed what happened to Onaje fifteen years before. Though he doesn’t know it yet, nor do we, a reckoning comes for Richard, his father, and Onaje. But unlike most reckonings, this one distills hope, peace, and unity.
From his conversations with Belle, we learn the extent to which Onaje has evolved. Thus, the wisdom and strength he developed on his travels transformed him into the admirable Onaje. As Onaje he has purified himself on his life journey. However, the old William and the events that devastated him still lurk within. Eventually, he must confront what occurred to expiate his guilt and self-torment and completely heal.
Though Belle intuits Onaje, she remains clueless about his, at times, gorgeous poetic language and philosophical ramblings. Nevertheless, she understands his goodness and truth. Indeed, he presents himself as a spiritual man of the universe. He perceives himself to be a caretaker of the earth and its people. And his life on the open road allows him to be free of the culture’s machine existence. Not only does Onaje manifest goodness to this couple. But his profound and poetic insights inspire Belle to seek truth in her relationship with Richard.
Eventually, Richard reveals his criminal, “uncool” past to Belle, and she reveals her “lowly” beginnings. Indeed, Onaje’s openness and authenticity encourage them. As Richard confronts his father and seeks forgiveness, we realize the positive impact Onaje has had. Certainly, a theme the character represents remains; only by living in truth can one be free. As a veritable tour de force, Onaje changes the lives of all those he encounters. Except one.
In the play Bowie Jr. revisits the tragic history of Cambridge, Maryland and William’s participation in it. Should this scene have appeared later in this work? Indeed, the structure of the play needs shoring up for this scene is the most striking. And all scenes in the play lead to and revolve around this one.
In 1967, the Civil Rights Movement gained in strength and solidarity throughout the country including Maryland. There, marchers and protestors supported H.Rap Brown’s dynamic speech in Cambridge, Maryland. When Brown identified injustices and demanded equal treatment for African-Americans on the Eastern Shore, klansmen whipped up whites’ fearful animosity and hate-filled sentiments. As a result infuriated white mobs, some, law enforcement in hoods, torched black neighborhoods. Tragically, homes burned to the ground. Indeed, most feared that snipers would shoot anyone who attempted to put out the raging infernos.
During the chaos, William/Onaje becomes swept up as a casualty of these catastrophic events. And Andrew, a young civil rights worker invited home by William’s Dad becomes another casualty along with the entire black family. Andrew (portrayed with good-natured aplomb and humanity by John Dewey), is at the wrong place at the wrong time with William’s family.
When racist cop Henderson seeks out William at his home, he questions Andrew’s presence there. The “do-gooding” arrogance of a white man in the home of a black family! Thus, Andrew’s magnanimity and color blindness provoke Henderson’s already stoked hatred. Tim Rush convinces as the malevolent, corrupt Henderson. Punishing both William (he had an earlier incident with Henderson), and Andrew, we witness the terror of sadism and brutality William must visit on Andrew. Thanks to Golden’s acute, precise direction, the scene is gobsmacking dynamite.
The incident remains the pivotal point of the production. And the lighting, staging and shepherding of the actors’ performances creates terror. Thus, the revelation of who, how and why Onaje is, clarifies. What remains must be healing between him and the man who might have stopped it but didn’t: Middleman, Sr. For he was present at the event. Henderson, the foil for wickedness, is past hope, overtaken by his own inhumanity.
The second half of the play appears anticlimactic. The playwright brings us to the closing epiphany through a meandering route. Nevertheless, when Richard brings Belle and Onaje to the Middleman home, and Henderson confronts Richard, the tension recalls us to the incident fifteen years earlier. Our fears coalesce around this character. Perhaps once again Henderson will explode with violence and hatred.
Most of these individuals seek to change and evolve. Why does this impulse elude Henderson? However, Middleman, Sr. has remorse for his former actions. He apologizes to Onaje and the hope of peace and understanding abides between them. This message, that we must be decent and human with each other in these times brings us a much needed uplift. Nevertheless, the reality of the Hendersons of the world enlists this concept. Out of horrific evil, good can come and people can change. But for some, this is an impossibility…perhaps until they stare at their own death.
I enjoyed the production, especially its excellent cast and the terrific performances by all, especially Curtis M. Jackson. Though the play needs fine tuning, the conceptualizations and themes are exquisite. The director well handled the challenges and the restrictions of the festival concerning sets, etc. In another venue with fine tuning of the dialogue, etc, this smashing production deserves another go around.
Kudos to actors: Jay Ward, Mary E. Hodges, Tinuke Adetunji, and kudos to Joye Liao (lighting design), Bevin McNally (costume design and wardrobe), Dedalus Wainwright (scenic design). Onaje was produced by Sue Conover Marinello.