David L. Wynn has his name attached to a Chicago low-income housing project, which presumes he’d made some contribution to the public good. Whoever he is, it’s a cinch his philanthropy didn’t involve architectural design. The scrawny development’s lone park bench sits on a barren sprawl of blacktop, flanked by seven floors of 11 nondescript windows each.
Ida Peters has taken note of the despond, brought home by friend Antonio’s race-fueled Taser death at the hands of the cops. The incident has served only to tinge the concussive “thump” from nearby car stereos and the cauldronful of desperate lives in deadly proximity.
Ida, who witnessed the killing as the unseen Antonio was “minding his own business,” knows that this scene is played out in pockets of urban America at once almost routinely and with unsettling random. And at 18, she’s desperate to get out of the projects she’s known all her life. She’s one of the protagonists in Christina Anderson’s BlackTop Sky, first entry from Ira Aldridge Repertory Players in two years and a statement about alienation and poverty in a world gone awry.
Amid the shrewd use of technical tools and casting to type, director Calvin Manson’s show is as compelling and persuasive as it is adroit.
Anderson’s story isn’t particularly involved, with a baffled Ida resenting her sick mom and absentee dad: Should she mend fences and tend to mother? Should she ride her basically decent boyfriend Wynn’s coattails and leave the projects? Do her flirtations with political activism signal a shift in her attitude?
And then there’s Klass, the homeless guy who wears a winter coat in the middle of June, the “pigeon man” who stole her keys and games her into getting them back. The inexplicable bond between the two culminates in the story’s climax. Meanwhile, while Ida and Wynn are too young to know what they want, Klass is too brilliant for his own good. His impassioned monologue on the effects of street life — that “violent gust of truth” — is delivered with the poise and volubility of a Maya Angelou.
Ida’s dreams are in some serious jeopardy, but Klass’ have shrunken into the few cartons of his possessions, which are never more than ten feet away from him. One of the two will walk away the wiser (my lips are sealed) — but by then, the fear and mistrust between the three characters take on the traits of those between the residents and the “thick-neck” police.
And where the story is relatively simple, Manson’s set and lights corroborate it very, very well — stark shadows and brilliant whites swirl about the concepts that Klass and Ida embody, while assistant helmer Vimel Sephus has worked overtime on a collaborative sound design. The technical effort also takes care not to overload the set with cliches. Just as Ida latches onto her hopes, the garbage in the alleyway stays neatly bagged, and Klass’ meager possessions include big fat feathers, his signature piece of symbolism.
Wrekless Watson’s Klass is a one-man Greek chorus, his central speech at once accusatory and reflective — as Klass’ wisdom outdoes his years, so are Watson’s tone and inflection measured and thoroughly on point. Ida’s car-mechanic boyfriend Wynn (Kendrick Dial) can’t understand Ida’s thing for Klass, but he keeps her on a fairly long leash, as Anderson obviously intended. That leaves Tina Machele Brown’s Ida, whose excellent oratory lights our imaginations (she offers suggestions about what all those windows look like; off go our minds’ eyes).
“Art is not a crime,” screams the graffiti on one of the project walls. While that particular facade is underadorned (and whereas the venue’s floor space is a skosh too large), there’s lots more to watch in a great exercise of balance between a show’s technical and human elements. Meanwhile, San Diego’s Mountain View neighborhood is no longer theatrically underserved — here’s hoping that the Aldridge group can ensconce itself accordingly. Nice show.
This review is based on the matinee performance of June 11. Blacktop Sky runs through June 25 at the Educational Cultural Complex Performing Art Theatre, 4343 Ocean View Blvd. in Mountain View. $25. iarpplayers.org, 619-283-4574.