Hezekiah Green, a character at the center of the new drama Levi, makes a religion of his stubbornness — and how seriously he takes his religion. A pastor who has lost his family and is about to lose his church as well, he is holding onto his faith when all else fails.
Running through June 22 at the Porter Sanford Performing Arts Center, Levi is the second offering from Rising Sage Theatre, which was created recently by the talented, charismatic Paris Crayton III (and colleague Kirk D. Henny), who was featured as part of our “30 Under 30” series last year after some attention-getting work in 2013.
It’s been 13 years since Levi (Anthony S. Goolsby) has last seen his father Hezekiah (splendidly played by Taurean Blacque). After years of a strained relationship, Levi left home and went out on his own. He’s now in Idaho with a family, including a daughter. In the interim time, however, he reestablished a relationship with his mother before she passed. Now he is honoring the promise he made to her to make up with his father.
Visiting Hezekiah, Levi soon learns little has changed. They argue and Hezekiah makes it clear he is not happy with what Levi’s doing with his personal life. The two have differing opinions on how their mother, supposedly stuck in the middle, really felt. While Levi feels sorry for what is happening to his father as his church is being torn down, he can’t make much of a breakthrough.
Crayton wrote Levi as well as directed it, and he has a feel for dialogue. His play deals with a topic that never seems to lose its timeliness — the bonds and riffs between a son and his father. At times, it can be droll, especially in the hands of the one-minded Hezekiah, who treats his offspring — literally at times — like a pariah. It’s a project that means a lot to Crayton. (In the program notes, the playwright speaks of the strong relationship he has with his own father and posits the question: What would make a father hate his son?)
The weakness of the play, ultimately, is in its familiarity. The grand secret that caused the family strain, which is supposed to come as a surprise, is pretty easy to guess. It also seems almost retro. The two men bicker almost nonstop, and much of the first act is just an extension of that, with the father spewing biblical scriptures — blaming Levi for everything, including his wife’s death — and the son pleading with him to see who he really is. In Crayton’s defense, he is perhaps trying to reach an audience that doesn’t see theater regularly or who’ve never seen a play dealing with certain issues.
Levi could have benefited from being a one-act show. Two acts feel too long. Its last scene, also, seems a bit superfluous. Yet both actors are quite natural, although there seems to be a wide gulf of experience between Blacque and his younger costar. Goolsby gives Levi a sense of frustration and desperation as he tries to make peace, realizing he could be running out of time. As for Blacque, his Hezekiah is one of the most fascinating creatures of the theater season. He doesn’t care what others think. The Emmy-nominated actor of Hill Street Blues fame, who frequents Atlanta stages these days, is gruff and unbending, always convinced he is right. That the character doesn’t have some sort of cathartic change-of-heart moment is also admirable.
Levi is a spunky little play that is by no means bad. Like Arís Theatre’s current The New Electric Ballroom, it just doesn’t reach the heights it should. Blacque’s presence, though, really elevates this father-son drama.