Now that the word “lynching” has become a general term for extrajudicial punishment, a synonym for any action interpreted as plain old revenge, its basic meaning is being corrupted. Justice Clarence Thomas used it to describe his confirmation hearing. President Trump used it to characterize the impeachment inquiry. But lynching has more nefarious origins, of course. It is a real not symbolic word, not when thousands of African-American bodies were hanged by ropes from trees.
Thus, when lynching is threatened in Ricardo Pérez González’ sharply drawn, solid “On the Grounds of Belonging,” having its world premiere at Long Wharf Theater, it’s no idle threat. The play, taking place in Texas in the 1950s, seems to have been written in that same time frame. That is, it’s realistic, without theatrical tricks, a straightforward, absorbing tale of thwarted love and destructive prejudice.
That it’s as relevant now as it might have been then is thanks to continuing negative attitudes towards both gays and blacks. Taking place in Houston, it revolves around two gay bars. One, the Red Room, caters to whites; the other, the Gold Room across the street, welcomes blacks. When a white woman invades the Gold Room, where the play is set, the drama begins.
Actually, the woman is Thomas Aston (Jeremiah Clapp), a white young man in drag who seeks refuge to avoid a Red Room raid by police who do not take kindly to drag queens. But something more than bargained for occurs when the white “woman” falls for Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), a young black man, igniting all sorts of public and private fires, including the very real threat of lynching.
Russell is pulled in several directions. There’s the other black young man, Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris) whose yen for Russell leads to violence. There’s the bartender, Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), a peace-loving man who has accepted his hierarchical position.
Also trying to keep the peace is Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), the saloon singer with a heart. Add the two bars’ owner, Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), a stereotypical redneck.
These characters, products of their environments, are limited by society’s sexual and class strictures. Still, basically this is a love story, transcending friendship, race and family. “Love notices, love looks back,” says Russell.
Although we don’t know enough about the characters, beyond what we see before us, the acting is superior. Under David Mendizábal’s sensitive direction, the balance between societal threats and individual desires drives the action.
As Thomas, Clapp zeroes in on his wants with such take-no-prisoners strength that you push forward with him, caught up in his quest, while Smith makes Russell’s initial reluctance believable, and his overcoming satisfying. Morris is an angry, frustrated Stanfield. If Bockhorn and Silcott are no more than figureheads, at least they convey men strangled by past experiences. As the singer, Tracey Conyer Lee is as sensible as she is empathetic.
Starting with its poetic title, “On the Grounds of Belonging” is not only a strong work, it’s a positive harbinger of Long Wharf’s future, led by its new artistic director, Jacob Padrón.