It is difficult to quantify and nearly impossible to overstate how meaningful it is to see alternately refreshing and frighteningly familiar, compellingly complex, and positively potent (otherwise relatively invisible) faces, places, and circumstances in art, media, and literature.
Enter organizations like The Classical Theatre of Harlem and the Hip-Hop Theater Festival and their joint production of SEED at the National Black Theatre. According to producers Clyde Valentin and Ty Jones in a letter insert from the play's program, Rhada Blank's play is "the epitome of [their] respective missions [of] bringing both classic and contemporary stories to the stage with a specific dedication to serving artists of color and underserved audiences."
SEED chronicles the rescue of a gifted young boy named Che-Che (for short) from stifling environs by Anne Colleen Simpson, a social worker on an essential sabbatical. Lauded in her field for the lengths she went to for her clients, but haunted by a "lost one" whose backstory parallels her own, Simpson resorts to a desperate measure to save Che-Che and, ultimately, impacts his family and community as well.
From the play's literary setting to its literal staging at the National Black Theatre, SEED is firmly rooted in Harlem. Prior to "lights up," the audience is immersed in sights and sounds of the neighborhood as images of historical and everyday landmarks are projected on a screen at the back of the thrust stage.
This screen, framed by columns on either side with translucent rotating screens behind and from which characters occasionally appear and emerge, later transports the audience to locales like the subway and characters' homes and jobs. The unassuming set design, rounded out by a few basic but telling set pieces, including couches and bookcases, spot lighting, and the thrust stage, helps draw the audience in to focus on the rich story and fine performances.
Indeed, Blank's lyrical, intermittently amusing and heartwarming, thoroughly topical and provocative script is in great hands. Every actor in this production ably pulls her or his weight by imbuing Blank's well-drawn characters with engrossing genuineness. The seamless transition into poetry and rap within and across scenes, which give the play the feel of a hip-hop "musical," is particularly noteworthy and impressive.
The sum of these parts is a brilliantly complex, beautifully rendered yarn that explores everything from gentrification to the rewards and challenges of social work to peer pressure and bullying. Via a web of complicated relationships and with comparable doses of delight and tenderness and pathos and edge, SEED masterfully poses tough questions without offering easy answers.
It is a boon that audiences uptown get to see aspects of themselves in this snapshot of the interaction of a group of Harlemites. As a snapshot of humanity, SEED, like any great work of art and literature, has the potential to touch folks from all walks of life. "Downtown" audiences will be able to relate to, be touched, informed, and shaken (in the best way) by this play as well.
Head over (or up?) to SEED at the National Black Theatre before it closes on October 9th and earn bragging rights that you saw it before it reached Broadway. I'm calling it – it’s that good, important, and relevant.
* Image credit: Seed The Play Facebook page
Article first published as Theatre Review (NYC): SEED on Blogcritics.