Some Old Black Man review – Wendell Pierce and Charlie Robinson are riveting

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Intergenerational racism is explored in James Anthony Tyler’s gripping play, as a son and his father try to find a way to live together

An ageing father has just moved into his son’s apartment. We meet them at breakfast – the capable son cooks, the ailing father crabs at him and their tone hovers between light and dark as they bicker, sing and reminisce.

Donald (Charlie Robinson), 82 and too ill to live on his own, is a former taxi driver from Mississippi. Calvin (Wendell Pierce) has done better for himself, working as a university professor and living in a Harlem penthouse. The son does not want his father to put his gaudy Afghan throw in his stylish sitting room; the father calls him a snob and reminds him of the ignominies of his boyhood.

This testy, teasing dynamic could develop into a Frasier-style comedy as they play out their little battles through arguments over interior decor. But the currents between Donald and Calvin drag us into deeper waters and an underlying conflict. It turns into a riveting drama, not only about all that is left unsaid in families, but also the intergenerational experiences of racism in America.

Previously staged at 59E59 Theaters in New York in 2018, this digital version is directed by Joe Cacaci and produced by UMS (University of Michigan’s University Musical Society). The actors only ever move between a breakfast bar, dining table and sofa, thrashing out their pasts for almost two hours, but it does not feel static for a moment.

James Anthony Tyler’s script contains enough emotional potency and drama to create its own movement and we latch on to every inflection. Both actors hold us in the grip of their performances: Pierce is sometimes the erudite professor and other times the stompy, stroppy son, while Robinson is fierce, curmudgeonly and unforgiving, with sudden plunges into vulnerability.

It is, in some ways, a classic confrontation between father and son: the latter flexing his muscles as the former’s power fades, but it is also about being a black man in a country with a heavy history of racial oppression, which comes between fathers and sons.

“There you go bringing race back into it,” says Calvin to Donald, who defends Bill Cosby (“I know some white men doing the same thing”) and takes subtle swipes at Calvin about his white wife, Teresa. “You have been trying to be white for so long,” he tells Calvin contemptuously.

Calvin, meanwhile, charges his father with cold disapproval over the decades. There is pride on both sides, and a deep hurt that is eloquently unpicked. As Donald speaks of cotton picking and the horror of witnessing a black man’s lynching, we see how America’s racial history has marked someone from his generation. “The way they’re still killing us,” he adds, mentioning Ferguson, though it might be just as applicable to last year’s killing of George Floyd.

As a man growing up in the 1940s and 50s, Donald is not far removed from Pierce’s Willy Loman in the Young Vic’s recent Death of a Salesman, who is held back by the same racial prejudices, despite all his middle-class aspirations to prosper. Social class forms part of the mix of Donald and Calvin’s resentments towards each other, but slowly the men move towards understanding, and back to love.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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