It’s been said about playwright August Wilson that he wrote about ordinary people trying to survive in the struggle. I was recently able to catch J.E. Robinson’s play “The Strong Man” at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival at Theatre 80 St. Marks this past Friday, and Robinson’s characters are as authentic and lively as Wilson’s, but the twist is Robinson hewing toward the darkness in life in his own, unique way.
“The Strong Man” begins in the Great Depression, and is set in a barber shop, where four old friends are gathered seemingly to shoot the breeze, get a haircut, and perhaps play some checkers. But these are no ordinary friends. This is the Crabtree gang, led back in the day by Pearl (Fulton Hodges), who once supplemented their income as entertainers by occasionally killing someone whom someone else wanted dead.
At first, the discussion seems to center around the gang being willing to pull off one last job, to eliminate a young man in the community who has been messing around with multiple women and drawing too much attention to himself. However, as the haircuts progress, and the conversation turns to what happened to the money they made, and the gun they all used to jointly own, it becomes abundantly clear that the barber, Lawson, played with strength and earnestness by Jeffrey Butler, has something else in mind. Rounding out the cast is Victor Arnaz, adding a dash of panache as the dandified Victor. Hodges’ Pearl personifies a man who is doing well for himself, relative to his old friends, yet keeps a streak of impatience on the surface that let’s us believe this is a man who could have killed another man without much difficulty.
Once Pearl (Hodges) becomes suspicious that there is a plot being hatched between Lawson and his mentally disabled brother Geech, played with subtlety at a slow simmer by Jay Ward, he manipulates Geech over a game of checkers to try and get the whole story out of him. And once it’s revealed what Lawson requires from his old pal, Pearl, like the audience, is shocked.
“The Strong Man” is a strong work – playwright Robinson shows us the harsh realities of African Americans during the Depression without being preachy or melodramatic, and the direction, by Lawrence Floyd, was deft and masterful.
“The Strong Man” ran for only one performance as part of the festival, but it is available for future productions by accessing it online as part of the New Play Exchange, https://newplayexchange.org/plays/98715/strong-man