Two black men on a street corner, drinking beer. One is a college student, the other a dad talking about how he loves to buy books for his daughter.
Two cops approach, without a word. Expressionless and silent, the two friends raise their arms and assume the position. One cop frisks and the other watches. This happens three times in the opening few minutes of Megastasis, the new production by Eclipse Theatre Company. Three different pairs of cops approach and frisk.
Point made. Stop and frisk is so common if you’re an African-American man that there’s no need for dialogue or explanation. It’s a fact of life, as are other legal and institutional limits that affect the lives of young black men. Megastasis is a tense, visceral dive into the life of one of them.
Aaron Todd Douglas directs Megastasis, doing much with minimal set, props and costuming. He has the two key ingredients: a fine script and an excellent cast.
Kia Corthron’s play is a world premiere at Eclipse, which presents the work of one playwright each season. Corthron’s Force Continuum was staged this spring and Breath, Boom will close the season in November.
Tension prevails in Megastasis. There were moments when I covered my eyes because I was afraid of what would happen next. When we first meet Tray (Anthony Conway), he’s 19, living with his grandfather Dex (Darren Jones), working a minimum wage job, and hoping to marry the mother of his baby daughter. He smokes a joint at a party, then buys three joints and gets arrested. That begins a cycle of trouble, which includes a prison term. A long prison term.
Meanwhile, his friend Dubby (Gregory Fenner) goes to medical school and becomes a doctor with a nice apartment, where he lets Tray crash when he’s released from prison for good behavior. Dub’s old girlfriend Gina (Ashley J. Hicks) is now a public defender and advises Tray about his behavior while he’s on parole. (Don’t quit your job; don’t hang out with felons; don’t miss an appointment with your parole officer. In the ‘70s, she says, “nobody went to prison for parole violation. Today it’s a third of the prison population! Don’t become that statistic.”
Metastasis ends years later. Tray’s daughter Mica (Martasia Jones, who also plays her late mother Nakeesha) is 16 and thinking about college. She’s taking care of Dex, now suffering from cancer, and welcomes her father, who finished a long prison term … parole violation.
Playwright Corthron includes a lot of information in her well-written drama about the state of play for young African-American men who get in trouble for what seem like minor offenses. We learn stats about stop and frisk in New York, about asset forfeiture (which affects Grandpa Dex), mandatory minimum sentences (“In the age of mandatory minimums, power has been transferred from the judge to the prosecutor and under the prosecutor there is no mercy”), voting rights for ex-felons (in New York, Tray can vote even though he can’t serve on a jury). And a barfly makes the case for drug legalization as he tells a story about bank money laundering.
Megastasis is staged in two acts (two hours with one intermission) in the third floor theater at the Athenaeum. The set includes a sofa, a rocking chair, a few tables and a desk, and a bar that doubles as a dumpster. Kevin Scott gets kudos for making do with a little in scenic design, which is enhanced by Mike Winkelman’s lighting and Sarah Espinoza’s sound design.
The play’s title refers to Dex’s cancer (it runs in the family). Tray tells how he chanted the word when he was in solitary. “Meta-stasis, meta-stasis.” And decided it wasn’t big enough so it became “mega-stasis.”
Megastasis by Eclipse Theatre Company continues at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport, through August 20. Performances are Thursday-Sunday with tickets for $35 (some discounts available).