On the Grounds of Belonging – Review by Tom Holehan

There’s plenty to celebrate at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre where new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón has taken command of the venerable playhouse and kicked-off his season with an apt and thoughtful world premiere drama. The play, “On the Grounds of Belonging”, is a new work by a new author (to me), Ricardo Pérez González, and sets a promising tone at Long Wharf for what looks to be an adventurous season.

“On the Grounds of Belonging” is a sad and all-too-timely story about a pair of gay lovers, African American Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith) and white man Thomas Aston (Jeremiah Clapp). Theirs is an affair being conducted on the down low in Houston, Texas during the height of the Jim Crow era. The play is mostly set in the Blacks-only Gold Room, a brick and wood burnished bar setting nicely detailed by designer Wilson Chin. It is here that Thomas, dressed in drag and taking refuge in the bar to avoid a raid at his own watering hole across the street, first meets Russell. The white bar is owned by gay redneck Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn) who also owns the Gold Room run by aging gay bartender Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott).

There is much to applaud about “On the Grounds of Belonging”. It’s a sympathetic treatment of a shameful chapter of history that still percolates in parts of this country today. There is great humanity afforded its central characters and, in a well-paced 100 minutes without intermission, director David Mendizábal has made this doomed love affair seem not only timely but essential. The play, however, is good enough to make you wish it were just a little better both in the prose and execution.
Although the writing is sensitive as to its lead characters, it can also be blunt and obvious with other roles in particular for the clichéd Mooney who often conjures up memories of Jackie Gleason from the “Smokey and the Bandit” pictures. As Tanya Starr, a singer at the Gold Room, Tracey Conyer Lee seems to have stepped in from another play and another era. There is also something a little offensive about a straight black woman speaking on behalf of the gay couple and her final song is so heavy-handed it cries for immediate editing.

The acting isn’t always convincing, but Smith is moving and compassionate throughout and, although still struggling with lines at the performance I caught, Silcott has some very nice moments as the older man who has obviously learned racial history in Texas the hard way. But the play, itself, still needs some tinkering especially in its final scenes which leave some obvious questions. Without revealing too many spoilers, the fate of Aston really doesn’t pan out if you think about it and Hugh’s sudden decision at curtain doesn’t seem to have much credibility at all. This is a drama, reportedly the first in a trilogy that, though well-meaning and quite powerful, is still in need of serious work.

“On the Grounds of Belonging” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through November 3. For ticket reservations or further information call: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.