Have you ever had your moral compass challenged? I mean really challenged, like a major opportunity in your life required you to cross that line, the line you said you’d never cross. What would it take for you do it? These are the questions asked by N, written by Chicago playwright David Alex, directed by TaRon Patton, and starring Stacie Doublin, Ryan Smetana and Reginald Hemphill, and it does so in a way that I really wasn’t expecting.
N opens with Mrs. Paige (Doublin), a fiercely independent, passionately politically conservative, older black woman who has recently, and unwillingly, gained a caregiver in Eddy (Smetana), a liberal, 23-year old white male who recently graduated from college and is following his dream of becoming an actor. He lands the part in a one-man reinterpretation of Oedipus, set in the southern United States. He gets the part, but soon enough the playwright changes one part of the play and adds the N-word to the script. Saying the N-word is strictly against Eddy’s moral code, and now he has a decision: does he give up this opportunity to further his acting career, as well as finally make some good money, but stay true to his values; or does he throw his moral code to the side? This is a topic that I don’t think gets enough attention, as you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a self-righteous liberal whose morals are dearer to them than their own children, and N takes people like that to task.
All the actors in N do a phenomenal job, and it would be hard to choose a favorite among the three actors. Stacie Doublin is compelling as Mrs. Paige, a woman who has become disenchanted with the political system, and believes that liberals really just want to keep African Americans under the thumb. Ryan Smetana as Eddy, on the other hand, really sells himself as this young white liberal who feels real passion for the things he believes in, but doesn’t yet understand that in the real world, what he believes to be true doesn’t work out the way he wants it to. The dichotomy of these two completely opposite characters, and their development throughout the story, are a fascinating overarching narrative, and lead to some heartfelt and moving moments. Last, but certainly not least, Reginald Hemphill gives a moving performance as Eddy’s best friend, DeShawn. Even though Hemphill doesn’t have a large role, his part in the production is crucial to Eddy’s character development, and Hemphill really sells the disappointment, possibly even contempt, he has for Eddy after he commits a certain inexcusable offense.
I must say that, at first I was really annoyed by N‘s portrayal of Eddy. As I mentioned at the beginning, he’s 23, white, male, liberal, has just graduated from college, and thinks he knows a lot about the world and politics, but he really doesn’t. It seems like he’s entirely based upon the stereotype that comes to mind when you see those words and that age put together. He says he’s colorblind, thinks that everyone’s equal, calls black people he doesn’t know “brotha,” and nearly becomes sick at the thought that he’ll be required to say the N-word. Now I’m 21, white, male, and I’m pretty left on the political spectrum, and seeing this kind of got on my nerves. In addition, with Eddy’s almost self-righteous refusal to say the N-word, I basically expected that the play was gonna end with him just refusing to say the word and Mrs. Page praising him for keeping his morals intact. That isn’t how it ends at all, and this completely turned my opinion of Eddy’s character on its head. If he had been some realist liberal who wasn’t all high and mighty, the ending wouldn’t have had nearly the impact that it did. This is why I appreciated how the production plays with this question of “What would it take for you to cross your ‘line’?” Everyone has at least one thing they say they’ll never do: maybe it’s stealing, bullying, or saying the N-word. What would it take you to do that thing? Success? Money? Fame? Maybe all three? N goes in on this in a way I personally appreciated, because in this day and age people can set themselves up as a bastion of morality while simultaneously avoiding any encounter that might challenge them.
N is a fine production that takes a hard look at the morals and boundaries that many of us hold dear, and sometimes use to define ourselves. It makes you take a look inside, because I’m sure most people who will see this production may think at first “Well I’d NEVER do that!” Think about that, because I’m sure if you look hard enough inside, you’ll find that your moral stronghold isn’t as impenetrable as you might think it is. David Alex and TaRon Patton have created a play that speaks to our time, and Doublin, Hemphill, and Smetana all did incredible jobs portraying their characters as real, flawed people, with deeply held beliefs that they finally realize may not be as deeply held. So go see it, unless of course you’re worried you’ll leave having learned something about yourself you would rather have not.
N is playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., through November 27. You can get tickets here. This show does contain some vulgar language, although the frequently mentioned N-word is never actually spoken.