It's appropriate that Gregory S. Carr's new play, Ain't Got Time to Die, is performed on a high school stage. Too often the show feels like a poorly disguised history lesson about racism in southern Illinois in 1936. Carr takes a standard lecturer's approach to his potentially intriguing material: Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them. Good theater, though, teaches by action and mystery, seducing the audience into asking questions instead of making them wonder why the characters are giving speeches to one another.
Carr writes in the tradition of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, whose realistic dramas explore the struggles of African-American families at various points in history. Many of Carr's characters seem familiar: Reverend Hezekiah Trueblood (an imposing Eric Toler) is a stuck-in-a-rut father sacrificing all for his son. Tirzah (Joyce Meeks) is the supportive wife and mother who helps her son behind his father's back. Meeks provides a solid performance that the other actors should emulate. Her steady engagement with scenes and believable reactions make her the most interesting actor on stage. As Mother Queenester Trueblood, the wily, long-suffering matriarch, Judith Jones finds some of the comic moments and grows in confidence throughout the evening. Her advice to Tirzah that "the man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the backbone" brought audible reactions of agreement from the audience.
The dramatic conflict centers on Jeremiah (Paris Crayton III), who wants to become an actor in defiance of his father's wishes. It's a recipe that could bake up some potent drama, but the cake falls flat. The Reverend is all bluster and unlikable rage -- why an intelligent woman like Tirzah would have married him is the play's greatest mystery. Jeremiah, meantime, spends most of the time sulking. The supporting characters are mostly one-dimensional (the hypocritical preacher, the sleazy con man, the bigoted sheriff). After spending the majority of Act One in redundant character exposition, unnecessary side plots and history lessons, the play kicks into gear in the middle of Act Two. But the sudden shift in action is so unexpected and overplayed that it loses its potential power. There's a gleam of greatness at the end, when the connection between faith and despair is explored. If Carr could have captured that conflict consistently, he'd have had a much more compelling drama.
Happily, the pre-show and scene-change music -- authentic gospel songs performed by the Community Church of God choir -- provides welcome relief from the difficult script. Director Don Weiss and set designer Sarah Thorowgood don't help the (little) action of the play -- the living-room furniture is placed so that people get trapped in traffic jams upstage behind the furniture and have no reason to move down toward the audience except when they've obviously been told by the director to walk there. The characters spend most of the play sitting in chairs talking to each other. Fault both writer and director on that one.
First Run Theatre was created to support regional playwrights -- a great goal. But is a fully staged production truly the best way to use limited resources? Ain't Got Time to Die offers some interesting scenes and good potential, but it needs much work. Instead of paying for technical elements, perhaps First Run could pay for professional actors to do staged readings. The playwright would get necessary feedback and the play could be improved and possibly given a fully staged production in the future.
"Theater has the power to change things," proclaims one character in Ain't Got Time to Die. While this is certainly true, it's telling that Carr has one of his characters state it instead of making his play actually do it.