Monday, December 9, 2013

Richard Pryor Jr. Stars in Welcome Home Sonny T

L-R: Richard Pryor Jr., Verna Hampton and Levern Williams in WELCOME HOME SONNY T.  Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.
Welcome Home Sonny T, currently playing at the Theater for the New City on First Avenue in lower Manhattan, is a powerful politically correct polemic in favor of gun control and the rights of illegal aliens, expressing the utopian dream that someday all men, whether white, black or Hispanic, will learn to live in peace.  The playwright, William Electric Black, a seven time Emmy Award winning writer, is best known for his work in family television (including such shows as Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic Productions), and this play, his first in a planned series of five addressing inner city violence and guns (to be collectively called Gunplays), appears to be directed at a similar young audience.

A few years ago, Sonny T and his friend Jasper held up a store and Jasper killed a man.  Jasper is now serving time in prison for his crime but Sonny T, as a result of the fortuitous intervention of Reverend Miller (Richard Pryor Jr.), has managed to avoid incarceration: Reverend Miller cut a deal with the authorities whereby Sonny T was permitted to enlist in the Army rather than be prosecuted for his involvement in the crime.  Now Sonny T is returning home from Afghanistan and the entire community, including his mother, May (Verna Hampton), his sister, Lashon (Brittney Benson) and his brother, Rodney (Kadeem Ali Harris), are planning a welcome home celebration for him at the Community Center run by Reverend Miller.

As luck would have it, Rodney is currently running with Jasper’s brother, Big Boy (Brandon Mellette), a truly bad apple.  Big Boy has provided Rodney with a gun that he persists in urging him to use.  Moreover, Big Boy not only resents the fact that his own brother is in jail while Sonny T avoided imprisonment by joining the Army but he also is violently bigoted against the Mexicans who have moved into his neighborhood and who, as he sees it, are taking jobs away from blacks.  When Carlos Mendez (Nestor Carrillo) delivers food to the Community Center for Sonny T’s party, Big Boy is livid.  When it develops that it was Carlos’ brother Hector who was shot the previous week and when Carlos organizes a march in his honor to occur at the same time that Sonny T’s party is scheduled, we just know that there is an accident waiting to happen.

Reverend Miller has attempted to tamp down the Black/Mexican ethnic tensions that threaten to destroy his community and to put an end to the gun violence that permeates it but he cannot help but be somewhat ambivalent in his approach.  A one time black activist prone to violence himself in the 1960s, he retains his identification not only with the black community but with all who are oppressed, including the Mexicans, and he can even understand their resorting to gun violence.  But he has grown since then and he realizes that guns are not the right answer and cannot provide a permanent solution to our problems.

The cast of seven does a fine job of depicting the pressures affecting the residents of our inner cities and their resorting to gun violence that is often the unfortunate consequence of those pressures.  I was particularly impressed by Kadeem Ali Harris’s portrayal of Rodney, torn between his love for his brother and his loyalty to Big Boy, and by Brandon Mellette’s portrayal of Big Boy, the angriest of angry young men.  Nestor Carrillo also did a fine job as Carlos Mendez, the young immigrant Mexican trying to make it in his new home.  Brittney Benson evolved in her role as Lashon, a good girl struggling to survive under difficult conditions.  And Levern Williams deserves special mention for his Sherman Hemsley-like portrayal of Funkygood.

One final note: the jazz/blues background saxophone music provided by Harry Mann was just terrific.

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