Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ol' Alfred

My latest review from the Post.


Rain can sometimes elicit melancholy; other times the sound of a soft rain, the smell of wet grass and the loam beneath, the feel of the stillness on the world can seem cleansing, a needed healing process.

“The Life and Times of Ol’ Alfred” begins and ends on the sound of rain, and the sensation is a mixture of sadness and healing.

That seems apropos, given the tumultuous year Shadow has endured.

Left reeling after the untimely death of founder Jeffrey Nickelson and subsequent off-stage drama fraught with resignations and hurt feelings as board members jockeyed for control of the company, Shadow was reduced in May to canceling an entire production. For a time, the future looked grim.

Let there be no doubt, however: Shadow is back.

In a moving, personal and deeply affecting debut, new playwright Jon Ian Sayles presents the story of his great-great-great grandfather, Alfred Sayles, as told through anecdotes passed down over the years.

Keeping it in the family, Sayles called on his father, veteran Shadow personality Hugo Jon Sayles to both direct and play Alfred, which certainly didn’t hurt the show’s chances.

The themes of sadness along with healing also run throughout the play, as Alfred gazes back on a life born into slavery, a life which never got a whole lot easier, even after Emancipation.

Born in Virginia, as a young child Sayles quickly learned what freedom meant. When relating the story of one of her escapes from slavery, his mother (portrayed by Lonnie McCabe) tells of being asked by someone if she is indeed a slave.

“Not no more I’m not,” she retorts, steel in her voice.

Aside from the better-known horrors of slavery--the whip, the privation, the institutionalized rape--there is a less-talked about type of pain inflicted by the complete and cruel control of slave owners that Sayles the younger presents here in heart-rending fashion: that of families being split up and sold off to distant owners.

Both McCabe and Sayles display a depth of emotion during a scene in which the family is broken up that is an embarrassment of riches. To not feel your own tears welling up as Sayles wipes his eyes and prepares to move on to the next anecdote is to be emotionally bereft, to be something less than a feeling, complete human being.

Later, though, he makes an observation that could be the tagline for the entire show: “Happiness follows sadness like night follows day. But they don’t last forever.”

And the play does have a few much-needed, unexpected sources of levity: A meeting of newly emancipated farmers is broken up by Night Riders torching Sayles’ house. As the fire spreads to the plantation owner’s crops and threatens the main house, in a panic one of the Klansmen goes up to Sayles, pulls off his hood and says, “All right, boy, grab a bucket! We gotta put out this here fire!”

Despite his tribulations, Alfred lived nearly 100 years, had numerous children, and fought hard against the former slave-owning power structure to take his own course, eventually succeeding. In the process he helped break trail for those who followed.

For his first production, Jon Ian Sayles has penned a powerful, moving piece. And while it is more a series of anecdotes as opposed to a point A to point Z play per se, at an hour and twenty minutes, it seems just right. The stories are riveting, and the time and character shifts are dealt with smoothly.

Hugo Jon Sayles as Alfred is obviously the focus of much of the show, and he adroitly pilots a roller-coaster of emotions without ever phoning in a false note.

The tears come, for people on stage as well as in the house, and they are genuine and unstoppable.

And both Lonnie McCabe and Karon Majeel are Sayles’ equals in terms of depth of emotion and the truth that they tell here, without resorting to manipulation or trickery.

Indeed, there is nothing but truth onstage during this show.

The Sayles clan et al remind us that, while facing hard truths can bring sadness, it is only by doing so that healing can begin.

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