Tears and joy

PBRC’s Two Can Play finds a moving balance
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  October 16, 2007
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DEVOTED: Fearon and Raidge.

There is so much gunfire and terror when Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play opens at Providence Black Repertory Company (through November 11), you’d think it was a wartime drama. Yet soon, lo and behold, we find ourselves in a comedy, and the only battles are between the sexes.
 
This is Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1970s, when political and gang violence was at its height in the neighborhood of Jim (Raidge) and Gloria (Marcia Fearon). It’s 1 am and Jim is popping Valium and not opening the window for some air because he’s afraid of catching a bullet. Gloria paces with a machete in her hand. They have sent their children to safety in America but can’t themselves afford even to move to a safer part of town.

Doesn’t sound like a comedy yet? Playwright Rhone — who wrote the screenplay for the 1973 The Harder They Come, starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff — wants to get real before he gets funny. Though this story takes place entirely in the Caribbean, it’s also about the American Dream and the desperate circumstances of many immigrants from Third World countries.
 
Against this background, with a stage-center barred gate that could be a jailhouse door, comes the humor. It can be straightforward, rather than  ironic or dark, since the contrast is so grim. Director Michael Rogers goes for the actual and lets the funny come across on its own.
 
Yes, Gloria is a take-charge spitfire and Jim isn’t the big he-man — the “General,” as he puts it — that he sees himself. Raidge, being a big bear of a man, makes that a sight gag. But the play is far more compelling than such a typical marital odd couple suggests. Their relationship clarifies and changes over the course of a few weeks as their scheme to get American citizenship takes shape and they put it into effect.
 
The experiences of their children in the United States is both encouraging and cautionary to them. They’ve had five kids in their 20 years together, but we hear only about the youngest three, who most recently escaped north. The older boy is working three jobs so his younger brother can go to school fulltime. (In a poignant little throwaway, we learn that the parents had sent that older one to school until they could no longer afford it.) Their 16-year-old daughter, whom Jim dragged out of a Kingston brothel and sent to the States, hasn’t been heard from for a worrisome long time.
 
The 71-year-old father of one of them — I didn’t catch which — is sick and in bed in another room, coughing up blood. Jim doesn’t succeed in running gunfire and police lines to get to their doctor after curfew for more pills. The old man’s sacrifice isn’t made clear until the second act, and it’s a stunner.
 
Oh, yes — comedy. The back-and-forth of Raidge and Feardon is deft and frequently hilarious. He handles the accent convincingly enough for these amateur ears, and while I lost an occasional line to the Jamaica-bred Feardon’s authenticity, there was always enough laughter to spare. She becomes a small-scale capitalist, for example, buying a carton of cigarettes and selling them by the stick or the puff, and their ongoing negotiation in one scene, with him dying for a smoke, just keeps on giving. The laughs are always firmly rooted in their character or situation, such as when she is wearing a green-and-orange frock that he points out will offend both sides of the conflict in the streets.
 
Their citizenship scheme takes Gloria to Miami, where she is gone for three weeks. She returns telling of an initial bus ride past tall white buildings that get smaller and smaller until she arrives at the Black shacks. She returns changed, wearing a prim blue suit and an arms-crossed attitude. She has seen the Promised Land and she’s not about to return to the slavery of any Egypt. By this point in this honest and intelligent play, we know that any resolution between Gloria and Jim will be as complex and convincing as any in real life.
 
Now and then Gloria sings a hymn to express her feelings and to hang on to hope. At different points, the same one is sung through tears and later through joy. In this fine production by Providence Black Rep, Two Can Play accomplishes that heartening balance time and again.

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