Playwright: Stacy Osei-Kuffour
At: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee. Tickets: 773-283-7071; TheGiftTheatre.org; $30-$40. Runs through: April 29
Whether it's the play itself, the production or a combination of both, this world premiere of Hang Man is not successful. It's performed as relentless tragedy but there's no tragic hero. It has a supernatural element but it's not presented as a horror-thriller, which it might have been. It could be very dark comedyespecially as absurdity piles on top of absurditybut neither the play nor the direction by Jess McLeod ever gives the audience permission to laugh, which comedy must do.
It's set "Now" in "a shit town in Mississippi" but it might as well be the 1950s. A Black man, Darnell ( Gregory Fenner ), hangs from a tree before us the entire play, speaking from the grave to explain his unhappy lifebroken home, mother who didn't want himand how he died. Soon after, we meet Darnell's sister Sage ( Jennifer Glasse ) and 12-year old niece ( Mariah Sidnei Gordon ), but not before meeting the three dumbest white folks who ever walked the earth. Darnell hangs in a place where lovers tryst and kids walk to school, and is seen by the white characters and his niece ( who supernaturally converses with him ), yet no one reports his death to the police. Indeed, one character is the police, a rookie cop who knows Darnell.
Almost immediately, Hang Man veers towards the white characters: waitress Margarie ( Angela Morris ), her abusive husband or boyfriend ( never made clear ) Archie ( very scary Paul D'Addario ) and Wipp the rookie ( Andy Fleischer ), with whom Margariefour weeks pregnantis two-timing. All three are retrograde racists, Archie profoundly so. Margarie sexually fixates on dead Darnell and seeks Black identity. She reads up on slavery ( apparently not taught in school ), and then goes psycho. She dons an Afro wig, smears her cheeks in blackface and claims Darnell fathered her newborn babe ( apparently a kidnapped infant ), but not before Wipp gives her his service revolver ( can you imagine? ) with deadly results. A final character, Jahaad ( Martel Manning ), is a Black Muslim from New York who wants money Darnell owes him. Jahaad woos Sage without success, and has utterly no impact on the story, so why is he there?
The Black and white characters also have little collective impact on each other, as Hang Man shifts focus between them, except that Margarie's lunacy is triggered by seeing Darnell. The brutal white storyline is far more active than the Black one, so it easily dominates Hang Man to little purpose except, perhaps, shock value. The very good actors perform with plenty of heart and intensity, so Hang Man's inadequacies aren't theirs. Osei-Kuffour must decide what focus and tone she wants to achieve, and revise Hang Man accordingly.