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A CurtainUp Review

I'm always writing about the same things. I'm concerned with class in America. . . There are all these pockets of invisibility in America, what I consider the culture of poverty.— Lucy Thurber, in a 2013 Curtainup interview by Lucy Ann Dunlap at the time five of her Massachussetts set plays were produced simultaneously at various venues under the umbrella title of The Hill Town.

Glenn Davis, Juan Castano, and Ato Blankson-Wood (photo by Joan Marcus)
With her new play, Transfers, Lucy Thurber returns to the locale of what's come to be known as her "Massachusetts Cycle." Her two main characters here are from the South Bronx, but we do find them in an Eastern Massachusetts college town to which they've come to finalize their scholarship applications to transfer from their Bronx Community college to Herrell College (probably Williams or Amherst). And as she said in her above quoted interview when her five Hill Town plays were simultaneously produced festival style by the Rattlestick Theater Company, she is still writing about issues of class in America. The "pocket of invisibility" explored in Transfers is education and its continuing exclusivity despite some institutions' attempts to broaden and expand their student population.

If someone wanted to do a Hill Town style presentation of thematically connected plays, Transfers would make a nice third of a triptych featuring last year's Pipeline and the just closed Admissions.

A key question that drives Thurber's play is whether admission to elite cultural institutions would be the best way for inner city black and Hispanic students like Clarence and Cristofer to overcome the deprivations of their upbringing, or that a few carefully awarded scholarships would make high income geared institutions better and more genuinely inclusive.

It's a worthy theme and Thurber has created solid portraits for the two young men going through the final phase of qualifying for this year's scholarships at Herrell College. She's lucky to have two fine actors to portray them —Ato Blankson-Wood (who previously impressed in a quite different theater piece,(The Total Bent ) and Juan Castano as Clarence and Cristofer (Last year's WOW Oedipus in Oedipus El Rey).

The playwright is further blessed that Jackson Gay, who also directed Scarcity and Insurgents, is on board to steer them and the other three also excellent cast members through the five scenes starting with the night before the critical interviews and moving forward to the interviews, a follow-up discussion between the interviewers, which is in turn followed by an epilogue between the two young men. Thanks to scenic designer Donyale Werle, each scene gets a brand new look without any extraordinary technical wizardry.

All these pluses almost overcome the playwright's too schematic story telling, several credibility stretching plot holes and a somewhat too convenient personal back story. These flaws notwithstanding, Clarence and Cristofer's double journey does hold our attention.

That double journey starts with their meet-up at a motel the day before the interviews that are part of navigating the tricky territory of higher education's policies vis-a-vis low-income students. There's also the secondary journey through their personal relationship which goes way back to their Bronx childhoods. The personal subplot is I suppose forgivable in the interest of building emotional and dramatic momentum.

Except for their similar backgrounds, Clarence and Cristofer are distinctly different in terms of their interests, personalities and reactions to the leafy, collegiate surroundings they find themselves in. Clarence is quiet, polite and openly Gay. Books have been his best friends and guides, so Herrell is a dream, a place whee he feels he could fit in. Cristofer, on the other hand, is more abrasive and over the top. While he's good in math, his big and most time consuming achievement has been as a wrestler. While Herrell wants him to keep wrestling his role if accepted will be that of a Scholar-Athlete— and Cristofer is willing to shift his priorities to obtain a prestigious college degree.

Since this isn't an educational documentary, the dramatic tension and reasonably suspenseful progression to a climax is created when the boys and David DeSantos (Glenn Davis) who's works for the organization dedicated to building these scholarships are forced to share a motel room as a result of a conference and messed up reservation.

The person who failed to reserve the room also failed to tell them that they would be competing with each other rather than just going through one final step. Thus, there's tension about more riding on that interview than anticipated as well as Clarence apparently pretending not remember his past history with the past Cristofer.

The revelations about the boys' past connection spill out fast enough. Consequently the only surprise is which one of them will emerge from his interview with the scholarship. This moves the interactions in the motel forward to the interviews— Clarence's with an English Professor Geoffrey Dean (Leon Addison Brown), and Cristofer's with Rugby Coach Rosie McNulty (Samantha Soule).

The interviews are the play's dramatic highlights, but oh, those plot holes: Would professionals like this really allow themselves to make this as much about themselves as their interviewees they're evaluating. Would a college admissions board encourage this as a good way to draw these young people out? And speaking of the rest of the admissions committee, I know this is a 5-character play, but couldn't some mention have be made of their meeting with them either before or after the one-on-ones between the boys with Geoffrey and Rosie?

Each interview ends without our knowing if either or neither boy will win the prize, though Cristofer's monologue about where he grew up and its effect on him is genuinely powerful.

The meeting between Rosie, Geoffrey and David that follows does fill us in on the outcome. And this is where Ms. Thurber pulls out all the stops to drive home her points, especially about the heartbreaking failure of even the most well-intentioned to break down the barriers between the haves and the have-nots.

As for that personal relationship between Clarence and Cristofer. Miss Thurber ties it all up with a nice, not all that surprising brotherly hug.

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Transfers by Lucy Thurber
Directed by Jackson Gay
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood (Clarece Matthews), Leon Addison Brown (Geoffrey Dean), Juan Castano (Cristofer Rodriguez), Glenn Davis (David Se Santos), Samantha Soule (Rosie McNulty)
Sets: Donyale Werle
Costumes: Jessica Ford
Lighting: Russell H. Champa
Sound: Broken Chord
Stage Manager: Veronica Lee
Running Time:100 minutes, no intermissiomj
MCC Theaterat Lucille Lortel
From 4/05/18; opening 4/23/18; closing 5/20/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/21/18 press preview

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