Tucked away behind the Canongate is a venue that came as a surprise to me. The Harry Younger Hall has been turned into an excellent theatre space, with raked seating and a good-sized playing area. For this production the set was minimal: a couch, a coffee-table.
This was more than just a practical decision. From the start, the actors captivate us. Speaking directly to the audience about their initial encounter, we meet a journalist and a social worker intensely interested in each other’s work – and very soon, each other.
After a romantic exposition, the characters’ names – Michael Sterling (Terrence Wayne II) and Eva Ramírez (Camilia Ascencio) – only quietly suggest their racial differences. It is when Eva’s estranged brother Eddie turns up that we detect real potential problems.
From that point, we are forced to acknowledge that it comes down to the colour of their skin. Eddie Ramírez (Samuel Garnett) is the fly-in-the-ointment of the two lovers. His casual racism is a spark of what’s to come. The tension is illustrated in both the tight dialogue and body-language, especially given the rather tactile way in which Eva relates to both men.
It could be said that Camilia Ascencio over-played this aspect with the brother, but when another character turns up – Freddie, also played by Terrence Wayne II – it appears to be her ‘style.’ Eddie’s ‘style’ is that of a stirrer, and he soon out-stays his welcome by using Freddie’s visit and the arguments between the couple as indications that all is not right.
One key argument is based on the characters’ perceptions of their professions. Michael believes he is impacting on people’s lives, whereas Eva is only interacting with people after the event. But when Eddie witnesses an incendiary incident between the police and Freddie, things get volatile.
Although this work evolved from talks, workshops, research, improv, and a long period of crafting by writer/director Hannah Trujillo, there is a nonetheless a strong narrative flow. Crucially, this background process was rooted in the character Freddie, based on the real Freddie Gray whose violent arrest and death sparked the Baltimore Riots of 2015.
Besides the strong ensemble acting it is the relationship with the audience that makes this piece work. When Michael dramatically storms off at one point, he strides to the top of the raked seating. In his next lines, he takes out a photo of his friend, Freddie Gray, and shows it to members of the audience.
The fourth wall broken, this then becomes our play. Given the continuing tensions over race three years on, and institutionalised hatred of certain ethnic groups (the script tells us ‘wet-backs’ is a slur for Mexicans) this is also a play for Mr Trump. No wonder Amnesty International longlisted it for their 2018 Freedom of Expression Award. A strong contender.
Man Down, CalArts Festival Theatre. Venue 13, 14.35hr, until August 25th