2/28/2019        GOODNIGHT, TYLER                                                Alliance Theatre

 

*****  ( A+ ) 

 

HIS PILGRIM SOUL

Tyler is dead.  And he knows it.  He saw his body lying on the sidewalk, a victim of another white-cop kills black-young-man incident.  

His grandmother blames his white fiancée for being "too dangerous for him."

His gay (white) roommate blames himself for giving Tyler a 90's hip-hop coat as a joke.

His fiancée blames herself for arguing with him at the wrong place at the wrong time.

His co-worker blames the system.

And all Tyler wants is to hang on, stay awake, and name his unborn child.

And be remembered.  For who he was and how he lived, and NOT how he died.

Such is the premise of B.J. Tindal's Goodnight, Tyler, an extraordinary and powerful play being given a superlative production on the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage.  This is the 15th production under the auspices of the Alliance/Kandeda National Playwrighting Competition, and, to my mind, one of the best.  It may be "about" a hot-button political issue of the day, but it remains focused on the personal.  Will Tyler's girlfriend say "Yes" when he proposes?  Will Grandma ever accept a white woman raising her great-grandchild?  Will

roommate Davis ever find the "man of his dreams?"  It is filled with the details of friendship and family and regret and self-blame.

And, while being one of the saddest plays of the year (*), it continuously draws laughter through its characters and dialogue, and tells its story in a constant what-happens-next narrative that is absorbing and compelling.

It displays a remarkable complexity of emotion and "back-story" yet remains compelling easy to "follow" and enjoy, playing fast-and-loose with reality (Whose dream is this anyway?  Does it matter?) , and with sequence (scenes of Tyler's "spirit" haunting Davis are juxtaposed with scenes from their past).    We don't even get the details of the shooting itself until deep into the second act.

And, just when you're ready to "write off" a character as irreparably flawed and cold-hearted, they'll give a heartfelt monologue that humanizes them even as it sets up what will be the heart-rending finale.

So, yes, this is a very well-written play, but don't let that overshadow the accomplishments of this cast and crew.  Designed in that most difficult of arrangements -- a playing area between two equally-sized audience segments -- it keeps the actors exposed and vulnerable.  Director Kent Gash blocks with a sure hand -- in this set-up, there will always be sightline issues, but he keeps them short and relevant.  It's as if he wants every audience member to see a differently focused show, and he succeeds admirably.

The set itself (by Jason Sherwood) is simple and elegant -- a "comfortable" urban apartment decorated in earth tones and grays, with a large screen TV on one side and a comfortable kitchenette on the other.  Liz Lee's lighting design is a marvel of precision and timing -- flashbacks and "dreams" are clearly delineated by color, and many "face only" specials punctuate the narrative (credit to the cast for "hitting their marks" for those specials).  A few projections at the top of Act Two underscore the power dynamics with both wit and character.

And this cast is totally at the top of their game.  Travis Turner is Tyler, effortlessly showing us a "good" person, totally undeserving his fate, totally confused by his current "pilgrim soul" state.  Alex Gibson as Davis is the comic backbone, embracing gawky gay mannerisms with glee, burying his honesty (and grief) with snark.  The always reliable Andrea Frye plays Grandmother Fannie with an honesty that makes us hate her -- she plays the character as one of those "Elder Privilege" types who INSIST on respect from everyone, but won't give an ounce of respect in return;  but she eventually earns our respect without losing her cold and prickly edges.  Alexandra Ficken plays fiancée Chelsea with a contagious energy that helps us overlook a lot of her "white comfort" assumptions; her affection for (devotion to) Tyler remains a constant.  The cast is rounded out by Danielle Deadwyler as Shana, the co-worker who wants to use Tyler's killing to score political points and Chris Harding, as Drew, another white friend who plays an integral part in the proceedings.

Above everything else, Goodnight, Tyler is about friendship, about its selfish aspects, its giving aspects, and its ability to ease a person through grief.  It is about family, and how some debts can never be repaid, some gifts can come with no strings attached.  And yes, it is about race, about what is gained and what is lost in any (every?) inter-racial friendship and relationship, explicitly letting us know that Tyler's goodness, his intelligence, and his four spelling bee trophies are no protection against a scared cop with a gun.

And, yes, it has one of the most moving and emotional endings you're likely to see this year.

-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com #AllianceGoodnightTyler)

* You know the cast is doing something right when, at a Student Matinee, 200 High School students sob in unison at the end.  I was not ashamed to join them.
 

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