University Theatre, NCCU
Through Oct. 12; tickets: 530-5170
The stage directions to Samm-Art Williams’ 1975 play, Homethe story of a black farmer’s journey from the Carolinas to New York City and back againbegin with two women singing a Negro spiritual in darkness. Over the course of the play, these women (“Woman One” and “Woman Two”) inhabit more than 20 charactersaunts and uncles, American soldiers, welfare caseworkers, drug dealers and prostitutesin a looping, musical dialogue. The verbal athletics are part of what makes Home so exciting: Three actors (the two women and Cephus Miles, the play’s protagonist) encompass a rapidly shifting terrain, which moves from prison cells to night clubs, a Vietnamese rice paddy to a South Carolina farm.
The NCCU production, which resumes this weekend for three performances, makes its artistic departure from Williams’ original, minimalist intentions clear from the start. Nine actors, led by senior Alexander Jackson, belt out a resounding, brightly lit performance of “In That Great Gittin’ Up Morning,” choreographed by Stafford Berry of the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble.
Director Karen Dacons-Brock’s decision to add six additional actors and 18 musical numbers establishes a strong sense of placea rural Southern town steeped in African-American song, humor and storytellingbut distracts from the play’s rapid-paced dialogue, itself a musical event. The opening and closing numbers are powerful and appropriate, but other choices, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” sung on a bus, feel incongruous to Miles’ conviction that he has been rejected by Godwho, it seems, is vacationing in Miami. Despite being enjoyable, the group numbers inevitably subvert Miles’ lonelinessthough the chorus line’s interaction with the character are at times hilarious, recalling Woody Allen’s visual gag in Mighty Aphrodite. Freshman Alphonse Nicholson, a standup comic from Greensboro, shines as Miles, capably shifting from a shy country boy in love to a reckless player in the city, haunted by the memory of his past. The performance exhibits a hardened conviction in constant threat of imploding, a stunning feat for such a young actor who, according to his program bio, has no prior theater credits.