NKU’s YES Festival Ends Powerfully With Student-Written “A Black Boy in Pink”
Review by Kevin Reynolds of “A Black Boy in Pink”: NKU Theatre
I think we can all imagine 1959 Cincinnati as a judgmental, unaccepting town for African Americans. It’s before the Civil Rights era kicked in, the majority living in very specific neighborhoods, including the West End. Now imagine being 19, black, and gay. Dismissed by family, unable to find a job, but needing a place to live and the occasional luxury of make-up and pink, silk ladies’ bloomers.
A rarity in Northern Kentucky University’s YES Festival, “The Black Boy in Pink” is written by one of their own students, BFA in Playwriting candidate Isaiah Reeves. Performed in the intimate confines of The Henry Konstantinow Studio Theatre, the opening night audience saw some of Reeves’ personal experiences translated into the character of Wyatt, portrayed by Je’Shuan Jackson. He’s an old soul trapped in a young man’s bigger body. He’s alone in the world except for his pimp, Rudolph (Thomas Smith) who connects him with a variety of men for sex-for-pay and keeps Wyatt convinced that this is the only option for a gay black man.
One of Wyatt’s johns turns out to be a well-known businessman he’s seen on TV commercials, Douglas Russell, purveyor of Russell’s Wieners (who claim to be better than Kahn’s, one of the many Cincinnati references made throughout â€“ more on that later.) Douglas (Nathaniel Clifford) is a newlywed who married one of his meat packing plant secretaries, Iris (Sally Modzeleski), a rough-hewn woman desperately trying to fit into a wealthy home but generally just being obnoxious and overbearing. Douglas’ younger brother Vincent (Cameron Myers), an aspiring (but really awful) playwright with no interest in the family business, and maid Blair (Haley Gillman) are the ones most trod upon by Douglas and Iris for their lack of success and status in life. Ultimately, they fight back but there’s not a real winner in the war. Except Wyatt.
Brian Robertson directed Reeves’ script with aplomb, using the small black box space effectively as the action moves from Wyatt’s apartment to the Russell’s dining room. The set by Anna Schwartz and lighting by Matt Schutte are both effective in illuminating the different social strata of the characters.
Ultimately, every character in Reeves’ world are living lies, except Wyatt. Even at 19, he knows who he is and aspires to be better. He knows he has disappointed his parents and beloved grandmother, but he insists on being his true self. Je’Shuan Jackson gives a layered performance full of heart and, ultimately, hope. The cast, including Gabriela Barbosa Gonzalez in two roles, show the foibles that humans have â€“ fears, aspirations, disdain, even lust and greed â€“ but only one character truly depicts love, and that’s Wyatt. He has a love for himself even when those around him show him nothing but disdain.
One other performance I must point out is Haley Gillman as the maid, Blair. In part comic relief, in part green with envy because Iris should have been her, in part lovelorn school girl with a passion for Douglas, and in part conniving co-conspirator to get even with them both, Gilman (whom I saw perform and sing brilliantly as Frau Kost in NKU’s recent production of “Cabaret”) is a force on stage who grabs your attention and holds it no matter which iteration of her character is on display.
As mentioned, there are a LOT of Cincinnati references from 1959: Hotel Gibson, Shillito’s, Pogue’s, Ruth Lyonsâ€¦some make perfect sense for place setting, some felt as if they were forced in to make sure the audience doesnâ€™t forget it’s Cincinnati. But that is a very small criticism of an overall exceptional script filled with fleshed-out characters and a highly personal story that may be a revelation to audiences, and a lead character that is singularly unique, not a characterization nor meant to be pitied. Remember the name Isaiah Reavesâ€¦I hope there will be much more from his pen on stages soon.
“The Black Boy in Pink” runs through April 14 as part of the YES Festival. For dates, times, and tickets, visit https://www.nku.edu/academics/sota/events/theatre.html