by Macey Levin
Playwright James Anthony Tyler’s work has been performed in several off-Broadway and regional theatres including the Berkshire Playwrights Lab in Great Barrington, MA, whose Some Old Black Man by Tyler transferred to New York this past season to very good reviews. Williamstown Theatre Festival is currently producing the world premiere of his Artney Jackson, a beautifully constructed and poignant play.
Through a work week in the break room of a cable TV company in Las Vegas, we watch six lives interact through laughter and pain. Artney (Ray Anthony Thomas) is the most experienced member of the retention team that tries to mollify disgruntled customers and then to extend their contracts. The team consists of five other members including his son A.J., (Michael Braugher,) a 30-year-old schizophrenic who still lives with his father; he is struggling to gain his independence by moving out. Artney, who promised his wife on her deathbed that he would always take care of their son, is recalcitrant due to his fear that A.J. will not take his medications.
Artney’s confidante Jackie Zinner (Portia) has an unknown illness she is afraid to pursue because of the distinct possibility it will cost her her job, something she cannot afford. Zaahir Baldwin (Christopher Livingston,) known as “Z,” is a Morehouse College graduate living with his parents but is in this entry level job to help repay his loans and to start on a master’s degree His best friend at the job, Perkins Howard (Joshua Boone,) is a high school graduate who has been living on his own since he was fifteen and is proud of the life he has made for himself. The team leader Rhonda Simpson (Alfie Fuller) is about to retire.
All of them have frustrations or fears that are revealed as the week wears on. The personal, sometimes intimate, conversations and pointed arguments ebb and flow as the workers gather at the beginning of the day or at break time. These are all African-American characters, but the play is not about the appalling black experience of our history. They are simply people traveling through life looking for a way to make the trek easier, just like all of us.
The work of the entire cast rings true. Ray Anthony Thomas’s Artney is an affable man who truly loves A. J. but will not recognize him as a man. He shows more concern for others, especially Jackie to whom he offers compassion and advice. Though we like him, as we do all the characters, his opposition to his son’s needs is vexing. The frustration that Braugher brings to A. J. is telling. His physicality when we first meet him, his hands, his stance, suggests that he has a psychological problem. Both men sporadically show their love for each other.
Portia’s scene when she reveals the depth of Jackie’s fear about her job and her health is compelling and highly contrasted with her usual upbeat, jesting personality. Livingston and Boone, though working and socializing together, resent each other which is revealed in a tense, almost violent scene. Fuller’s sometimes imperious attitude as the team leader convincingly softens when her employees need care and comfort.
The beauty of Tyler’s writing is that he uses the mundane give-and-take to evolve character and to disclose revelations. He finds the drama in the lives of these working people who are doing their jobs, confronting or avoiding their problems. The plainspoken nature of their conversations draws us into their lives. The conflicts and camaraderie are convincing, though the concluding moment is a bit too pat.
Director Laura Savia keeps a tight rein on the cast, especially in scenes that could be over-acted. She allows the subtlety of the writing to make its statement while keeping the pace of the production moving. There are no unintended lapses in exchanges or the staging, which is fluid and delineates the nature of the various characters. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is neat and well-ordered with all the accoutrements including a vending machine. Actually, it may be too neat for a break room. The costumes by Emilio Sosa are varied given the ages and economic levels of the characters helping to define their personalities.
Stowe Nelson’s sound design, especially during scene changes, maintains the energy and intent of the script and Savia’s direction, while the lighting by Isabella Byrd is unobtrusive and complements the sound and set.
Artney Jackson is a play that will touch your mind and heart. James Anthony Tyler is a playwright to watch!
Artney Jackson by James Anthony Tyler, Directed by Laura Savia; Cast: Ray Anthony Thomas (Artney Jackson) Michael Braugher (A.J. – Artney Jackson, Jr.) Portia (Jackie Zinner) Joshua Boone (Perkins Howard) Christopher Livingston (Zaahir Baldwin) Alfie Fuller (Rhonda Simpson); Scenic Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd; Sound Design: Stowe Nelson; Stage Manager: Lloyd Davis, Jr.; Running Time: 90 minutes; no intermission; Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, Williamstown MA; Opens July 11; Closes July 22.