Home / Art & Culture / Review: A Catalog of America’s Problems in ‘Awake’

Review: A Catalog of America’s Problems in ‘Awake’

Racism, homophobia, sexism, police violence, immigration: All of these issues come up in “Awake.” It would be a lot for any one play — but “Awake” has nine of them, each clocking in at around 10 or 15 minutes. To its credit, the show, written and directed by K. Lorrel Manning at the Barrow Group, moves at a steady clip. After all, the best thing about an anthology is that if an individual play isn’t very good, it also won’t be very long.

Then again, these are not so much plays as vignettes. There is no time to get attached to any of the characters, or to let the situations blossom in a dramatically impactful manner. Setup, red herring, reveal, punch line: over and out.

The pieces — either monologues or two-handers — are economical in format, each focusing on a hot-button topic. Watching the show is like flipping through a catalog of America’s dysfunctions and societal problems.

In “Carlos, the Protector,” for instance, the protagonist is a cop (Jose Eduardo Ramos) who recounts the fast decision he had to make in a difficult, tense situation. The moral of the story is the moral of every story here: It’s complicated.

In “The ‘N’ Connection,” an interracial couple (Michael Giese and Madeleine Mfuru) argue over who has the right to say a specific epithet and whether there is such a thing as reverse racism. In “Saving Souls,” a teacher (Julia Ryan) summons the mother (Nelly Saviñon) of a little boy whose report on Hitler raised hackles among students and parents. The boy is an excellent student at a charter school — and the only Latino in his class — and it’s all … complicated.

So it goes, times nine.

Mr. Manning take pains to show the many sides of an issue and can’t be accused of hardened didacticism, but his efforts to be evenhanded can err on the side of safety and often sap the show’s energy.

An exception is “The Date,” the only entry flirting with satire and the only one to feature an obvious villain, so caricatural as to be a refreshingly obvious piñata for “woke” theatergoers. Martin (Garen McRoberts), is a cocky corporate bro who can’t stand what he perceives as affirmative action. This peach of a guy complains to his dinner date, Susan (Anna Russell), about a certain Jamal being hired over a certain Tommy. When pressed, Martin admits that Jamal is doing just fine at his job “but that’s not the point.” (You have to wonder why it took the reasonable Susan four dates to realize what a colossal jerk Martin is — anybody with functioning ears would have gotten that message in seconds.)

The show is essentially an earnest prompter for conversations or school discussions. Audience members are even given cards on which they can write down impressions, thoughts or questions before pinning them on an “experience wall” in the theater’s lobby.

What may linger most, however, is not a provocative idea (there are none) but some of the performances. In “A & J Rule the Universe,” for example, Vinny Baierlein and Trey Santiago-Hudson portray disaffected teenagers munching on fast-food fries and shooting the breeze as they drive around — not as aimlessly as you might think at first. Mr. Baierlein and Mr. Santiago-Hudson effectively paint outside of the rough outline they’ve been given. These characters’ lives may be in stasis, but those few minutes in their company go fast.


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