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A CurtainUp Review

Down in the jungle deep
Around the mountains
from coconut grove
Lives the most
now I made this word up "flyest" signifyest
signifying monkey
the worlds ever known

— Jesse James
John Earl Jelks, Jonathan Peck, F. Hill Harper, and Armando Riesco (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Attica, 1971. The famous prison on the eve of its infamous riots is the setting for ToasT by Lemon Andersen now at the Public Theater. But if you're expecting outsize brutality and barbarians at the gate, you're at the wrong play.

Andersen's tepid drama is not devoid of turmoil, but it bespeaks mayhem in miniature. Its discord plays out on a smaller scale. And the recurrent ToasT(s) of the title tend to distract from, rather than add to, the drama.

Rap recitals are de rigeur in ToasT— ToasTing personal histories, listless legends, the prison experience, and the overall vagaries of life. Urban verse is delivered directly to the audience or woven into dialogue by the six inmates on whom the play concentrates. They live in Cell Block D, designed by Alexis Distler. White-barred jail cells with only one or two physical sides nicely suggest the fully realized variety while enhancing the flow of the prisoners' movement. The cells flank a central open area where the inmates play cards and socialize.

Dolomite (Keith David) has been in prison twenty-three years and has become "the Man" of the cell block. He will soon be released. Phillip James Brannon, wearing a kerchief reminiscent of Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, is Annabelle Jones. She (Everyone refers to her in the feminine, and no one has a problem with her sexuality.) is in love with Dolomite and furious with him for not telling her he was leaving. Brannon skillfully shows us her simmering anger and complex personality. Quick on the uptake, she's always watching. She's a victim with a reservoir of strength.

Hobo Ben (Jonathan Peck) and Stackolee (John Earl Jelks) are older, seasoned inmates, similar in personality except for Stackolee's slightly more prickly temperament. Armando Riesco plays Jesse James, a relatively new recruit and the only non-African American among the prisoners. He tries to ingratiate himself with the others with mixed results by imitating "black" speech and behavior. He's impetuous, naïve, and unafraid. He's also funny. Andersen has given him a little more dimension than most of the other characters, and Riesco colorfully fills in the blanks.

The only character reminiscent of Attica as we know it is Hard Rock (F. Hill Harper). He runs around to meetings, prepares a list of demands, solicits signatures, and talks to anyone who'll listen (as well as sadistic prison official Sheriff Jody (Dan Butler), who won't). Harper succinctly captures the activist's zeal and boundless energy, as well as his descent into feeblemindedness when Jody puts him in his place before the riots have even begun.

Elise Thoron's direction is skilled but doesn't save ToasT from itself. Ultimately, the play doesn't work because its marriage of fact and fantasy is a cheat. That's not to say the two can't coexist, but there needs to be a relationship of some sort between them. It's not clear what the playwright's intention is, but he sends out a reality vibe and then backs it up with make believe with no point or point of reference. Hard Rock complains about inhumane conditions, but the prisoners float in and out of their unlocked cells with impunity. And Hard Rock seems to wander all over the prison unrestrained.

And then there are the ToasTs. Some, like Annabelle's reciting the chain of events that led her to Attica, ring true and add to the narrative. But others, like Jesse's rap about a lion, a monkey, and an elephant, are completely jive. Except for the four-letter words, it's a children's story. It's hard enough to accept that a felon behind bars would tell other inmates a story about talking animals, but it's even harder to believe they'd encourage and applaud his efforts.

The most authentic thing about ToasT is the prisoners' relationship with Sheriff Jody. He has no sympathy whatsoever for their gripes, believing that the crimes they committed deprive them of the right to be treated like anything other than animals. His disdain for the inmates is palpable, and it comes right back at him. They're most alive when reacting to his patronizing contempt. It's a dynamic that brings real conflict to the stage — something that's sorely missing from the rest of the play.

ToasT by Lemon Andersen 
Director: Elise Thoron
Cast: F. Hill Harper (Hard Rock); Jonathan Peck (Hobo Ben); John Earl J elks (Stackolee); Armando Riesco (Jesse James); Phillip James Brannon (Annabelle Jones); Keith David (Dolomite); Teddy Canez (G.I. Joe); Dan Butler (Sheriff Jody.
Set Design:  Alexis Distler
Costume Design: Dede Ayite
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Sound Design/Additional Music: Robert Kaplowitz
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Production Stage Manager: Kat West
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street,, (212) 967-7555
STARTING DATE: April 21; opening May 5; closing May 10
Reviewed by Michael Bracken based on May 1, 2015 performance
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