Sweet or Sour? The Dueling Critics taste 'Last Saint on Sugar Hill'
KELLY: What's so terrific about MPAACT's Last Saint on Sugar Hill is its unapologetic approach to its subject. As I watched this account of a man literally driven mad by greed, and the consequences of that for his two sons, I realized how often African-American-themed plays seem to feel obliged to be uplifting. But of course most of human life isn't actually very uplifting, and so the need to point a moral weakens the dramatic strength of the piece. Last Saint on Sugar Hill is anything but weak--and, curiously, is the more uplifting for it! Jonathan, your thoughts?
JONATHAN: As usual, Kelly, you jump in with an opinion before you provide any context. I could say "How like a woman," but that would only get me in trouble. But how like YOU, Kelly! This world premiere play by Keith Josef Adkins is about a father and his two sons living in today's rapidly-gentrifying Harlem. The father, Napoleon (not a subtle name choice), is a grasping, unkind and controling figure who's risen from poverty to oversee a small real estate and business empire. However, he's confused parenting with training dogs: he's raised a pitbull and a pampered poodle. Inevitably, one or both is gonna' bite Pop's butt. Hint: the pitbull is not the person Pop thinks he is.
KELLY: Oh, Jonathan, I always leave the tedious details to you, which is your forte, while I take flight intellectually, which is mine. But now you've let me down, because your description makes it sound like Last Saint is a classic Chicago kitchen-sink drama, albeit set in New York. Really it combines those naturalistic elements with a nod to magic realism, an approach I don't ordinarily like. But here the 'magic' elevates an otherwise pedestrian story to the level of a fable, or a morality play. Didn't you find yourself searching your memory for the name of the Biblical father on whom Napoleon was patterned? But he combines so many archetypal elements you can't settle on just one.
And how about Trinity Parnell's amazing performance as Napoleon? The whole company does well under the direction of the Jeff-nominated Carla Stilwell, but Mr. Parnell is above and beyond. Did you recognize him as the man who played Wilson Pickett for BET? Or were you too busy parsing the plot?
JONATHAN: Snippy, snippy! What you refer to as the "magic" elements only confused me (go on, Kelly, make an age-ist joke at my expense). The presence of a mystical homeless man who somehow has access to the hero's history is both strange and, frankly, unnecessary. It's not magic realism, and it's unnecessary 'cause Old Pops has plenty of baggage without any additional back story. Even so, playwright Keith Josef Adkins has bountiful and obvious gifts. Last Saint on Sugar Hill--Sugar Hill, by the way, is a famous Harlem 'hood--bursts with sharp dialogue, word-play and so much cutting humor that the comedy nearly overpowers what is meant to be a deeply serious tale. And, yes, Trinity Parnell carries the show as Napoleon in a steely, rapid-fire performance that engages the audience.
KELLY: So we agree that this is the work of a smart and interesting playwright, being performed by a strong ensemble led by an exceptional actor. Sounds like two thumbs up to me. Anything else is just quibbling.
JONATHAN: As Scarlett says in Gone With the Wind, "Oh, quibble-dee-dee!" I don't think the supporting actors are a match for Parnell, although Adkins does give him the most pungent role. It's always difficult when the antagonist dominates a play rather than the hero. Also, the strength of this work is NOT in the story. To go back to your opening comment that African-American plays "seem to feel obliged to be uplifting," I don't think you've immersed yourself in the black-on-black violence and currents of self-loathing to be found in much African-American dramatic literature. I find the generational dispute, and the unexpected aspirations of the older brother, to be more interesting in what is--I agree--an energetic production of a play by a writer with a voice. The MPAACT production of Last Saint on Sugar Hill continues at The Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln, through June 12.