Peace of Clay


Saturday, Feb. 23

Living Arts Collective, Durham

It’s to their significant credit that NC Theatre and Theatre Raleigh commissioned a new script from renowned regional playwrights Mike Wiley and Howard L. Craft for the companies’ “Reflections” series, a fledgling joint enterprise devoted to locally generated theatrical works in progress. But a different sort of commission—the mandate to bear witness that artists receive from their communities—grabbed our attention toward the end of promising two-act drama Peace of Clay, which first greeted the world in a star-studded staged reading Saturday night at Durham’s Living Arts Collective.

It comes when Marvin (a robust JaJuan Cofield), an exuberant boon companion of the teenage Clay (Neeko Williams)—a budding photographer and filmmaker—has recovered a video camera after thieves ransacked his family’s apartment in a housing project in the fictive small town of Bullins, North Carolina. After Marvin enthuses, “You’re the hood documentary!” (and Clay gently corrects, “documentarian”), Marvin charges the young artist: “Tell our stories until they listen to them … Don’t let it be for nothing.”

The directive to bear witness repeatedly rises from the script by two playwrights who both come from backgrounds similar to these characters. Clay tells Aisha (a sharp Destiny Diamond), a video-store coworker who’s interested in his work, that he feels compelled to “get the stories out of these projects” and let the people of his deceased father’s hometown “see what I see when I look at them.“

But Peace of Clay makes it clear that it’s not an easy task. Racial economics in the small-town South make Clay’s mom, Dean (a vivid Yolanda Rabun), doubt that people like them can afford to have dreams. At one point, she angrily asks Clay who he knows that has gotten out of the projects through filmmaking. Clay’s reply: “Who do you know that’s tried, Mama?”

Under Aurelia Belfield’s direction, a strong cast of supporting characters fleshed out a vivid world of everyday people. Phillip Bernard Smith conveys the fragile ambitions of Bumbry, Dean’s long-term boyfriend, and noted actor Lakeisha Coffey excavates the internal conflicts tearing up Marvin’s mom, Sheila. Meanwhile, the gruff, comical Donnell (Cofield) is always putting the earthy, candid Connie (Kyma Lassiter), Dean’s coworker and sounding board, “on watch” over at the local diner.

At present, Craft and Wiley’s script needs the editing and development expected of a work in progress. It episodically conveys some of the challenges of living in the projects but leaves the schisms of class between its inhabitants and those in Northside, “the bougiest neighborhood in Bullins,” relatively unexplored. Still, Peace of Clay already reads in places like a soul-baring letter from the old neighborhood, one in which two artists who have risen far hold themselves accountable to the folks back home.

Correction: This piece originally misspelled the surname of director Aurelia Belfield.