By Yuko Kurahashi
The Detroit Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Firepower, written by Kermit Frazier and directed by Lynch Travis, explores the challenge of trust, honesty, respect, and love through the reunion of two generations of African American men.
Set in Washington D.C. in 1989, Eddie (William Bryson) and T.C. (Jonathan West) return to the home of their father George Montgomery (David Glover) who is about to start prostate cancer treatment.
At the beginning of the play, Frazier takes the audience to three places in Washington D.C.: George’s house where he is comforted by his young fiancée Liz Hall (Jennifer Cole); T.C. and his partner Neil Russell (Daniel Johnson) in their hotel room; and Eddie visiting his high-school sweetheart Joanne Wells (Casaundra Freeman) at her home. The characters all get together at George’s house, which soon becomes a battleground to pick over old issues of the family, including the death of Eddie and T.C.’s younger sister. Eddie and T.C., in different ways, unload their disappointment, frustrations, and regrets in front of their father.
Among talented performers who tackle Frazier’s voluminous words, Johnson and Bryson stand out. Johnson’s Neil demonstrates his nervousness, sensitivity, and vulnerability underneath his charming and funny “facade.” His non-stop lines and mannerism paradoxically reflect his pain of not being able to celebrate his relationship with T.C. who is reluctant to make his sexual orientation and relationship open. West plays T.C., a college professor, who struggles between the need to protect his father and his wish to be truthful to his partner.
William Bryson well portrays the complexity of Eddie, George’s “prodigal son” who has been alienated from his family for nearly 20 years. Like George he was a quarterback in college but was burdened with the high expectation and pressure from his father. While playing in the NFL Eddie was injured and at one point his wife left him and now he has not seen his daughter for many years. Eddie went to Europe and encountered a book written by sociologist Harry Edwards which made him aware of the exploitation of African American athletes. A former athlete, Harry Edwards advocated for empowerment of blacks through eradication of racism and structural changes in athletics. In Firepower Eddie is trying to finish his memoir, and his determination to complete his book resonates with the possibility for change as well as the power of story-telling.
Glover plays George, a first-term African American D.C. Councilman, as a loving, curmudgeon, “firepower” patriarch who maintains his middle-class, conservative beliefs. His fight for and commitment to the civil rights “of blacks” excludes rights of the LGBTQ community. Frazier’s play “teaches” this old-type liberal to expand his viewpoint to help the next generation to obtain their civil rights and a broader sense of diversity.
The set designed by Harry Wetzel consists of white pillars and white/gray marble platforms and boxes that function as seats. Classical Greek columns on stage help to provide the neutral space, suggesting multiple locations including George’s living room, T.C. and Neil’s hotel room, and other unspecified places. Wetzel’s “white” set helps the audience to imagine, rather than “see” the location through Frazier’s rich and voluminous words. Lighting designer Thomas Schraeder changes the intensity and color of lights to indicate different times and spaces.
The setting of the play, the year of 1989, is evoked by sound designer Burr Huntington who uses music ranging from disco to a piano solo, illuminating the cultural atmosphere and the characters’ feelings, including George’s final acceptance of his sons. Sandra Glover’s costumes suggest the late 1980s with T.C.’s tweed pants, Liz and Joanne’s puffed shoulders pads, and Neil’s tight t-shirt and jeans.
Using the familiar structure of a family reunion and reconciliation, Firepower is packed with a number of issues and subjects from the history of the civil rights movement, racism and exploitation in American sports, search for and expression of identity, and the need for change toward further inclusion and diversity. Because of the wide range of the topics and issues, Frazier’s female characters remain undeveloped, serving as dramaturgical agents to reveal Eddie and George’s past and present.
Kermit Frazier, professor of English at Adelphi University, has written a number of plays including Kernel of Sanity, Little Rock, Legacies, An American Journey, Dinah Washington Is Dead, Class Reunion, Outside the Radio, and Smoldering Fires.
Founded in 1957, the Detroit Repertory Theatre will be celebrating its 60th year anniversary in the 2017-18 season. The focus of the theatre has been on community involvement and engagement through interracial casting and staging of plays with sociocultural relevancies. After Firepower, the Detroit Repertory Theatre will present James Armstrong’s Capital (March 23-May 14, 2017) and Thomas W. Stephens’s Countdown to the Happy Day (May 25-June 25, 2017) as the last two productions of the 2016-17 season.
Firepower is playing at the Detroit Repertory Theatre through March 12, 2017.