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Seeking the Genesis
by Les GutmanKia Corthron in addition to being the Manhattan Theatre Club's first Van Lier playwriting fellow, has received commissions, grants and awards from a host of prominent theatres and institutions. In her new play, Seeking the Genesis, which was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre and received a Kennedy Center Fund for New American plays she has the unenviable task of navigating a complicated, highly controversial subject: the root cause of violence among young inner city males. That she does so in an interesting, absorbing way justifies the attention and support her work has received. Even if she is not entirely convincing. A single mother, C Ana, (played with a calibrated mix of stubbornness, humor, confusion and frustration by Aunjanue Ellis), is determined to raise her hyperactive six year old son so she doesn't "lose" him to gangs and violence. But how? Does she listen to his well-meaning teacher? To her bright, loving fifteen year old son who is already plagued by a street life of crime and bullets from which he can't escape? Or to the professor who seems to have all of the answers?
Central to the dilemma is the controversial use of drugs, (Prozac and Ritalin most notably), to control the behavior of children. In addition to standard questions about effectiveness and safety (not to mention mind control), the real biomedical firestorm is an inherently racist theory that African American males are genetically prone to violence. The drugs are said to be the only way to "fix" the genetic "defect".
At their best, plays that tackle difficult and controversial topics foster understanding by making the audience feel the emotions that prompt the debate. At their worst, they sermonize.
Seeking the Genesis is at its best when it exposes the everyday life of C Ana and her family. Seeing and appreciating the sanctity and security "home" represents, we wince when it is chillingly violated. When elder son Justin tries to break out of the cycle of violence he entered as a pre-teen, we are vividly reminded just how brutally the inner city crime establishment enforces its culture. Joining C Ana as she seeks answers, we too are confounded by the contradictions and frustrated by the lack of easy solutions.
You can't experience this family's life without experiencing Kite, its six year old bundle of energy. As tiring and worrisome as Kite may be to his family and teachers, young Kevin Rahsaan Grant's disciplined off-Broadway debut is so apt (through the full range of moods and emotions, drug-induced and otherwise), he is a joy to watch on stage. Sharing a mother's anguish as she watches her child seesaw between disruptive and inattentive--but seemingly happy-- on the one hand and glumly docile on the other, one quickly appreciates what's at stake for her.
Ms. Corthron demonstrates what is meant when we speak abstractly of the importance of giving voice to strong minority or women playwrights. As confounded as we are by the thorny issues in the play, we are never confused by C Ana's search for truth. Corthron's clear language sees to that. It is so crisp you can almost hear it snap in its often staccato delivery, sometimes freakishly resembling George Bush imitations.
In C Ana's fifteen year old, Justin, we are provided a chance to see the life from which C Ana is fighting to shelter Kite. We are not left to wonder what evils lurk outside the apartment door; Justin has found them. While treating us to a Tommy Hilfiger fashion show, handsome Donn Swaby portrays Justin as an angry conflicted victim who tries to balance caring about his family (including his own baby) with a morality in which it is better to sell guns to children than to steal from the elderly.
In counterpoint to C Ana's pursuit of answers, Justin seeks his own. They are strangely muddled, as are the playwright's intentions in conveying them. His sudden realization of the "truth," seemingly accepted at play's end, oddly belies the struggle that precedes it. The truth he sees is neither a mystery nor a surprise: he concludes violence is learned, not inherited. I may reach the same conclusion, but his pronouncement adds nothing to that process. Perhaps apropos of the underlying debate, when the time comes to reach a conclusion, the reasoning suddenly becomes hollow.
Seeking the Genesis disappoints when it starts to preach. I view this as a lack of confidence. This playwright who does not hide the fact that she is an anti-Prozac partisan seems capable of conveying her message without letting it show. A few brief detours such as one cataloguing well-known inequities between inner city and suburban schools threaten to divert attention from the thrust of the work. These extraneous moments which also seem uncharacteristically weak are fortunately limited.
A simple, fluid set design by Christine Jones supports director Kaia Calhoun's film-like staging, as does Scott Zielinski's lighting--or lack thereof. He uses darkness or a flashlight to convey fear in a way no additional lighting could ever replicate.