Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders
Manbites Dog Theater
Through Nov. 14

Local playwright Howard L. Craft (A Touch of Sugga) explores a little-observed moment in American culture in his new play Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, currently enjoying its premiere at Manbites Dog Theater. Set against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the play explores the lives of U.S. soldiers stationed in West Germany with realism and humor.

With a premise somewhat reminiscent of David Rabe’s Streamers, Craft uses the barracks setting as a microcosm of conflicting backgrounds and values in the world outside. It’s a smartly observed play that, nonetheless, could use more of the drama of its historical setting to give it more edge.

We follow 10 American soldiers, most notably Private Caleb “Calypso” Stephens (J. Alphonse Nicholson), who dreams of studying music and becoming a rapper, along with his friend and fellow grunt “Chill Will” (Trevor Johnson). Various subplots unfold around Calypso and Chill Will that involve pregnancy, past regrets and an expert sniper (David Greenslade) with a potentially career-ending secret. The play takes pains to paint the parallels between the world of two decades ago and the world today; footage of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush opens the show, and the shadow of Iraq hangs over the production.

The dialogue between the soldiers has an unforced, naturalistic feel; standouts include Lucius Robinson as the satanic Dresner, who gives an articulate yet understated menace to his line readings, and John Rogers Harris as the laid-back sergeant capable of explosive authority when necessary. Calypso suffers, though, from a lack of escalating drama. Many scenes are well written and acted, but there are some plot points, and even characters, that could be cut. One narrative strand about a pregnant girlfriend adds little to the story.

There are interesting issues regarding the racial and cultural shift of the late 1980s at work in Caleb Calypso. Still, the show feels more like a slice of life than a dramatic story; furthermore, the ending is a bit abrupt and on-the-nose. Overall, though, Craft’s play is a smart, privileged look at a little-known corner of a pivotal historical moment, and it offers great authenticity and humor in its best scenes.