Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: The Political Present

"I have to run."

Roy Williams's modern update of Alan Sillitoe's famous short story finds England has not changed much in 50 some odd years but his contemporary re-telling, set around the London riots with a multi-racial cast makes a strong argument that this story needs to be heard again today.

Colin Smith (Sheldon Best) has dropped out of school, cannot find a job, and ends up stealing a cashbox from a Greggs shop and gets caught and sent to juvenile detention facility.  Once there he is encouraged by one of the authorities at the facility, Stevens (Todd Weeks) to participate in a running competition which would pit him against boys from a local prep school.  As Colin trains, running free in the woods at the facility, we see flashes of the home he came from with a mother (Zainab Jah) more interested in shopping than her son, the influence of his socialist father (Malik Yoba) now deceased, the trouble he and his best mate Jase (Joshua E. Nelson) got into, and his burgeoning relationship with Kenisha (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  Through his solitary running training, we hear what it is that is going on inside his mind. 

In watching this play, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, I was struck by its quintessential Britishness (with references to council estates, Greggs, Carphone Warehouse, and bawdy Jamaican street slang which I have inadvertently learned from British TV show The Thick of It) .  But perhaps it is that cultural distance that gives the American audience the needed perspective to look at race and class and the disenfranchised young men who this story gives voice to.  It seems like we never hear these stories--giving equal weight to class and race and economics and family and politics.  Or maybe when they are told in America, they are like Fruitvale Station where the dramatic stakes are life and death and guns.  Here the stakes are quieter but no less important.  It is about the choices we have and don't have, agency, and self-worth.    

Williams frames this story around contemporary British social issues--massive unemployment, the UK riots which spread quickly through social media and led to looting and mayhem, and the power structure of the nation.  What Williams (and Sillitoe before him) does is give purpose, power, and agency back to the Colin Smiths of the world.  We are given insight into a young man who is trying to carve a place in the world for himself and on his own terms.

Smith is made a pawn in other men's plans with Stevens fixated on taking down the private school boys as a proxy for the elite in power. But as Colin starts to make clear, that fight is not necessarily his fight.  He's as unseen by the David Cameron-s of the world as he is by the Stevens-es of the world.  This play foregrounds the social and political issues yet maintains a focus on the personal.  Because everything is framed through Colin's eyes we cannot help but see the contradictions, the injustice, and the struggles he has in a world that hardly recognizes his existence.  Rather than just complain about political and social institutions we see the trickle down effects of their impact on these young men.  The state is nevertheless indicted but without heavy-handed rhetoric. The play is not flashy or loud.  But it is in the solitary quiet of a man's mind that this play gives us the rare opportunity to hear voices so often drowned out.


Best spends much of the play running with projections that follow him as he moves through the woods. It's a highly athletic role and the fact that he never seems breathless during his monologues is impressive.  Of the supporting cast, Jasmine Cephas Jones stands out in the small role of Kenisha and Todd Weeks shines in the appropriately contradictory role of supporter and oppressor, Stevens.

As much as I have a love-hate relationship with projections, here they are used to strong effect to both imprison and free Colin and the caged surfaces that surrounds him are never wholly forgotten.
 

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