UMS's stage-film hybrid production of "Some Old Black Man" explores race and generational conflict
This review originally ran on January 19, 2021. We're featuring it again because UMS is streaming "Some Old Black Man" for free March 1-12, 2021, but you have to register for the screening here.
The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to engage in picayune arguments that quietly scratch at, and chafe against, far deeper issues.
Which is to say, a family clash about what to eat for breakfast—a conflict that kicks off early in the recently streamed University Musical Society theater production of James Anthony Tyler’s two-hander Some Old Black Man—is often about something else entirely.
In the case of NYU literature professor Calvin Jones (Wendell Pierce) and his ailing, 82-year-old father, Donald (Charlie Robinson)—who’s just been relocated from his home in small-town Mississippi to Calvin’s posh Harlem penthouse—a conflict about a yogurt parfait strikes notes of really being about control, and conflicting generational perspectives, and blackness, and ego, and masculinity.
That is an awful lot for a soupy bowl of granola and fruit to carry.
But Tyler understands that to mine down to the heavy, hard-to-face stuff, humans inevitably have to start the process by hacking away at nonsense for a while—with absurdly tiny pickaxes.
Hence a grumpy father-son tussle about a brightly-colored afghan that doesn’t match Calvin’s neutral-toned decor, and another about whether Donald needs to ask to put up a photo of Calvin’s deceased mother. Both men are widowers—Calvin having just lost his wife one year earlier—but beyond that, and an affection for the blues, the two have precious little in common, and seem to no longer know how to talk with (rather than at) each other.
Suzanne Young’s costume design visually echoes this contrast, with Donald shuffling around the apartment wearing red and white plaid pajamas, a navy robe, and brown slippers, while Calvin is quite literally “buttoned up” in a light blue dress shirt and tie, a gray sweater vest, dark slacks and dress shoes, and bookish, circular glasses.
Pierce, whose television credits include The Wire, Suits, and Tremé, portrays Calvin as a persnickety, cultured New York intellectual who’s cheerfully trying to “step up” to help his father while also still mourning his long, happy marriage to a white woman named Theresa. Robinson (Night Court, Mom), meanwhile, depicts Donald as a spiky old man who’s masking his fear—about leaving all that he’s ever known behind in Mississippi and about suffering the various indignities of old age. Both actors deliver powerhouse performances, giving you the sense that they’re upping each other’s game simply by sharing a stage.
Clocking in at about 100 minutes, Some Old Black Man, directed by Joe Cacaci, unfolds in real time, over the course of Donald’s first morning spent in Calvin’s apartment (cleanly and elegantly designed, along with the show’s lights, by Justin Lang). The men’s complicated, strained history with each other, their contrasting personalities, and their very different generational experiences of being black in America give them plenty to unpack, which is why what would otherwise be a limiting dramatic framework ultimately works. Yes, the play’s momentum occasionally flags, as the men spar and return to their corners again and again and again. But Caraci wisely lets each scene breathe, without pushing, and takes pains to keep shifting the action around to different areas of the set in a visually organic way. This directing sensibility, paired with the show’s terrific acting and tension-releasing moments of humor, makes the show’s bittersweet punch of a climax land.
Filmed by Chicago-based HMS Media at Detroit’s Jam Handy building last November, Some Old Black Man had a small creative team—the two actors, Cicaci, and stage manager Tiffany Robinson—that quarantined together for three weeks in a house in Ann Arbor before filming got underway in Detroit. (The production marks the first phase of Pierce’s Digital Artist Residency with UMS.) Strict safety protocols were in place throughout the rehearsal and filming periods—frequent testing, a COVID supervisor, a plan approved by unions and public health officials—thereby both testing and demonstrating how a theater production could be safely mounted during a pandemic.
Mission accomplished, though not without hitting some bumps along the way. (Cacaci was diagnosed with COVID early in the rehearsal period.) The resulting film, unlike standard theater productions, points the viewer’s eyes precisely where the creative team wants them to be, and we often have a far closer view of the actors than we would when sitting in a theater. But there’s also a sense that the cuts that happen between characters are primarily dictated by the way our gaze would naturally flow when watching a live production, anyway, which makes Some Old Black Man a true stage play-film hybrid.
Regardless, getting to see UMS’s production of Some Old Black Man felt meaningful not just because of the play’s content, which speaks directly to our country’s ongoing racial reckoning, but also because it reminded me of why, and how much, I miss live theater. There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a story that’s unfolding live a few feet away from you. And while Some Old Black Man couldn’t quite duplicate that exactly, it came as close as anything has for me in months.
And that sensation alone was enough to give me hopeful chills.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
While the streaming period of "Some Old Black Man" is over, UMS is working on broader distribution. Visit ums.org for more info.