PNR REVIEW: Stage Play “JR” Reaches Far & Beyond

Donnevan Tolbert (19) Malcolm Harris(18) Antonio Jeffries (16) Devin Laster (25) Brandon Haugabook (18) Brandon Foxworth (17)

Donnevan Tolbert (19) Malcolm Harris(18) Antonio Jeffries (16) Devin Laster (25) Brandon Haugabook (18) Brandon Foxworth (17)

My friend having a party at PV tonight…. You should meet me. Sat 1:57PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: What friend Sat 1:59PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: Lol…does it matter…I miss you..

Blaize Ali: Or meet me next door at Coaches Corner..about 8

Blaize Ali: We can share some nachos Sat 2:01PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: Ok Sat 2:01PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: Cool Sat 2:01PM via SMS

     I thought about Malcolm Harris (18) and Devin Laster (25) and their  new play, JR, and what it meant for two young men to write and produce such a necessary and urgent play (necessary and urgent because of the current condition of black fatherhood – an issue which has been so thorough discussed, deconstructed, analyzed and examined that I won’t even bother to regurgitate it here, but let’s just assume that we all know what the issue between black men and fatherhood to be). Quite frankly, I didn’t feel as though two young and inexperienced boys could have experienced enough life (which is really about how we respond to tragic events which ultimately change us forever), to have enough insight in to the human condition, the complexities of fatherhood – black fatherhood, to be  so boldly presumptuous as to write about.

download_20131225_154218Fwd: Fwd: > – Have you heard about that new play JR? I just sent you the flyer for it Sat 6:12PM via MMS

Blaize Ali: I see it. Are you goin? Sat 6:18PM via SMS       

Push Nevahda: I’m reviewing it Sat 6:19PM via SMS

Blaize Ali:  Ok..did you want to hook up another day… I’m still going to Coaches Corner and heading over while it’s the time the play is over, it’s gonna cost you 20 bucks…so not worth it. Sat 6:22PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: K another day is fine. Sat 6:33PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: Ok…hope to see you soon. Sat 6:34PM via SMS

     In order for JR to work, Harris and Laster would have to grapple with classic American themes involving the struggles and hardships of any father and son. In this regard, one cannot help but think of  Miller’s Willy and Biff Loman (In Death of A Salesman), or even Walter Lee Younger’s  tepid relationship with his son (in Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun). Unlike JR, Willy and Biff did not have to deal with the (contemporary) racial/economic issues which circumscribed the lives of the Younger clan, but especially the relationship between he and his son whom Walter Lee wants to raise with dignity, hope and promise, but whose ideology clashes with his matriarchal and unflinching mother. In this poignant scene, Walter Lee – trying to convince his mother to give him the $10,000 check to start a business – wrestles with the generational dilemma of father and son: “You tell that to my boy tonight….when you put him to sleep on the living room couch. Tell him when his mother goes to care for somebody else’s kids. And tell it to me when we want curtains or drapes….and you sneak out to work in somebody’s kitchen. I want a future for this family. All I want is to be able to stand in front of my boy….like my father never was able to do to me….and tell him he’ll be somebody in this world…besides a servant….and a chauffeur” (Hansberry, Raisin in the Sun). I didn’t think Laster and Harris could deep sea dive as deeply as Hansberry and Miller had gone. I continued to toy around with a better idea to go drink with Blaize Ali and LJ.

 Push Nevahda: Me n LJ still going to PVs for a drink. If u still at Coaches then cool. But I won’t b payn $20. I won’t be at this play for long Sat 6:44PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: I’m Just going to Coaches Corner to eat..PV lounge is the party..see you then. Sat 6:46PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: O ok Sat 6:46PM via SMS

     I couldn’t find a parking spot. Frankie Beverly & Maze were playing at the Detroit Opera House, and the entire area around center, the boarders of Broadway, East Grand River and John R., were busy with people strolling, cars driving – mostly, perhaps – to the Detroit Opera House to see Frankie Beverly and Will Downing. I finally located a good parking spot just across the street from The DOH at the front end of the middle-island of Madison. I did not want to see this play – Malcolm Harris and Devin Laster’s new joint, JR – which I’d already made up in my mind would probably be a waste of my time. What could these little boys know about fatherhood and suffering?  

Push Nevahda: Where’s Coaches Sat 6:54PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: Next door..remember we sat outside eating nachos? Sat 6:55PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: O Who ure birthday friend at PVs Sat 6:56PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: Thomas Sat 6:57PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: Who is that Sat 6:57PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: Lol you don’t know him..he and his wife invited me Sat 6:58PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: O ok. R u at coaches Sat 6:59PM via SMS

Blaize Ali: Not yet…I will be there @ 8. Where r u? Sat 6:59PM via SMS

Push Nevahda: I’m at the play. It’s about to start Sat 7.00PM via SMS 

     I’d decided to stick it out. I ran into Detroit actress (and recent Wayne State University Theatre graduate) Kristin Dawn-Dumas, and it turned out Dumas has mentored many of the castmates. “I came to see my babies,” she said, excited, taking off her coat before heading to the booth to buy a ticket. By the end of the show I realized that Harris and Laster had done much more than write and produce a good play. They did something that matters. They wrote a relevant play of classic proportion.  It’s really the ironical background context which illuminates the play even more so than the fact that it was written and produced by two young Detroit artists. There are two ways to appreciate Harris and Laster’s efforts;  it simply depends on who you are, how you think of these matters, the color of your skin, and whether you have the intellectual ability (and depth) to think outside of the box where black men are concerned. If Laster and Harris had committed a crime and their faces were all over the news, we would not think much of it: it’s to be expected of young black men. And given the current prognosis of inner-city life Laster and Harris could be statistics – the collateral damages of low-income realities, socio-economic disparities, and a marginal existence within the crippling confines of ghetto life, it is worth noting the conscious efforts of Harris and Laster.



But JR isn’t perfect. It struggles to dive as deeply as its predecessors, deeply into the complexities of father-son relationships, but there is an honest attempt to peel back the layers and get to the heart of (several) matters in an attempt to fairly and honestly discuss and examine these stories. At times during the performance,  one cannot help but think of Baldwins sardonic memories of his contemptible father, but JR takes that dynamic to another level because race, class, and socio-economic issues matter here too. By the end of the play I realized that I saw other parallels: Benedict Mady Copeland (and his perceived failures as a father) in Carson McCullers’ novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.  In a way, the play addressed this conundrum as well. Or at least the play grappled with some of the possible collateral damages of absentee dads (which often produce recalcitrant sons).   Harris and Laster wrote the smart play in effort to generate a dialogue on the age-old issue of father-son relationships. The two Cass Tech High School graduates eventually involved other peers facing similar matters and the creation of a poignant script and subsequent production found the two experienced actors confronting the classic dilemma of father and son relationships. Harris explains:

The way JR came about is I was talking with a group of friends about the relationship we had with our dads – or the lack thereof – and I found it very strange that out of all my friends only two of them lived with their fathers…and have day-to-day relationships with their fathers, and I thought that was really sad. And I was talking to other friends and [the stories] just came about, stories of kids and their fathers no one really knows about…. As young men we are brought up to believe that…don’t show any emotions; real men don’t cry so we keep all that stuff bottled in side. So these stories are real, and I feel like they need to be told somehow.  So I thought it’d be a cool idea to make a play about it” (Interview at The Michigan Citizen,

 Most of what is young black consciousness is often reflected in rap, movies, and other forms of expression which mostly highlight the negative aspects of black male humanity. But the consciousness of Harris and Laster – and their magnificently relevent play – is intelligent. JR is not just a good play, it is also a necessary play. As for Harris and Laster, these guys are on their way to something big. Really big.

All photos courtesy of Lumumba Reynolds

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