Black theatre broke through in America when Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 masterpiece A Raisin in the Sun isolated the Negro narrative inside the domestic space, dislocated our relationship to white America in favor of concentration on our relationships to each other, and elevated ordinary people in a black family as characters worthy of epic focus. Similar to Arthur Miller’s and Eugene O’Neil’s and Tennessee Williams’ offerings, Hansberry illuminated the family homestead as perhaps the most powerful ground upon which to examine human nature and genius. The fact she was a black woman doing so with a black family proved to be a turning point in commercial success for a flood black playwrights and actors, when the more palatable concerns of family drew larger diverse audiences than politically-charged or “white-shaming” productions had been able to do.
Since then, black theatre—like most of black cultural Americana—has continued to include the ongoing African-American experience of its oppressive caste as a central theme. Yet so much more of it also quiets that theme, to make the stage exist primarily for the characters’ humanity. Masters of yesterday like August Wilson and Ron Milner, as well as new classicists like Lydia Diamond and Pearl Cleage, exploit theatre in its most traditional forms to give the black family home and the love within it credit as all an audience needs.
Synthia Williams’ play Sins of the Father falls in line with this tradition of subversive radicalism, with the story of three generations of black men told with such simple purity and grace it is hard to know when or how the play even ends. Just as real life has no definitive ending or period at the end of the day, the final scene of Sins of the Father suggests the story goes on to a new moment immediately but the theatre just has to close.
George Hamilton (George C. Stalling) is a senior man with a past, and his sacrificial care for a grandson has been his personal exoneration from that past. It is also a residual commitment to his deceased wife, who perhaps never deserved his devotion to begin with—let alone his regretted violent actions to both protect and keep her, for which he served time in jail. His home is orderly, routine, quiet, peaceful, and reverent to his golden years.
To complicate matters, their one son Caleb (Marc Rogers) is a flighty blues singer and guitarist who disappears for years. He just dropped off the illegitimate son he sired with a songstress who abandoned the boy as well. That son Joshua, played by a magical and earnest Justin Wade Wilson, has externally accepted life without his father: he will soon graduate law school, has a beautiful fiancé, and reconciled his fatherlessness with an attitude toward success as opposed to a bitter callousness down the road to defeat.
Out the blue, Caleb shows up like he has never been gone. The senior Hamilton has been around the block more than a couple of times; he knows the son he has not seen in well over a decade did not just wake up one day and miss his old bedroom. Yet, he is also seasoned and wise. He has suffered enough, knows life is short, and therefore tries to do everything he can to make his prodigal son comfortable and unashamed. Joshua, however, will not follow suit. Skeptical and deductive, he is not willing to let Caleb off the hook. Every longing and ache for his real father comes to a head the morning he wakes up to Caleb sleeping on the couch with his guitar beside him. Caleb wakes up to the type of reunion he had to have anticipated, but is just too proud and dreamy to believe would actually occur: a brisk and icy grown-up son who wants nothing to do with him now.
Breaking that ice is the motor behind the entire play, as the men come closer and closer to each other in scene after scene even when it appears they could not be further apart. Over the course of a season their lives pivot around the couch, a small kitchen table, and a busy minibar tucked in the kitchen corner. The family has one diehard friend, T-Bone, who provides interruption of both tension and ennui arising from veteran actor David Adams’ arsenal of supreme talent and gift. It must be noted the director of this Chicago premiere for Sins of the Father is a woman: Sonia L. Surrat. It is remarkable she took this writing from another female and steered the all-male cast to such believable places.
I cannot recall the last time I read a novel, saw a play or watched a movie of black male protagonists without my mind snatched into remembrance of their oppression at the white man’s hands, or their dangerous position at the hands of each other in “The Streets,” or even their threat to black women. These men are done with the streets. If these men have angst toward white America, they have chosen to let it be. These men love women. The absence of female characters onstage only magnifies just how much these men really do love women, as the “man talk” abounds like a charming peep show every lady wants to get in on. These men love each other, although they are unsure how to show it until nearly the end. As crises arise outside the world onstage (Caleb is hiding poor health, Joshua’s relationship is not as perfect as it seems), the men in the house stay connected to one another in soft ambiguities one minute and tame arguments the next.
Black stories and talents do not receive enough respect to be able to achieve and operate under the sublime. Williams’ script invents characters who all take their coffee differently. It calls for audiences to pay attention to how they pour and drink their booze. We get to know them by the rhythms of their footsteps on the wood floor. And we must hear these men just…talk. They may shut up long enough to down a shot or play dominoes or sing a song, but mostly they just want to communicate to each other and loved ones who are not there. The story carries two opposing arcs—one of things and people building back up, and one of things and people falling apart—and it needs not just the actors but the audience to feel a set point where both those arcs briefly intersect.
Stalling as “George” and Rogers as “Caleb” anchor the production in steadied, mature performances as men who are not black, fathers, or sons—but just grown men: the type who watch football after Thanksgiving dinner or sit strongly in hospital waiting rooms or open the doors to the church. And the moments Williams shows us of their lives makes us want to see these men much further in that way. Her work leads us to believe we will actually keep watching this play to get to do so. But the story, simple as it seems, is not nearly that simple after all.
Sins of the Father, written by Synthia Williams and directed by Sonia L. Surrat, runs at eta Creative Arts Foundation until Sunday, October 25th. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.
About the playwright: Synthia Williams is a native of New Jersey, holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University and a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Radio, Television and Motion Pictures. Three of her plays (Sisters, Sins of the Father, and Boxing Memories) have been produced, with Sins of the Father being accepted into the National Black Theatre Festival and the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival in 2013. Her most recent work, Domestic Damages, will premier in 2016. She is currently the Associate Artistic Director of New African Grove Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia.