"Harry and the Streetbeat" at the Bloomington Playwrights Project is an insightful look at life in the turbulent Harlem of 1968. OyamO's play leans toward the ironic, the warm, the humerous and even moments that are hysterically funny. At the same time there are some seriously grim scenes. The large varied cast that director James Mumford has assembled includes twenty-three actors with twenty-on African Americans and two Caucasians. Thursday night's audience got in sync with the play, laughing, groaning, reacting with shock and enthusiastically applauding most scenes.
"Harry and the Streetbeat" follows the life of, Harry, an aspiring young black playwright from Ohio. Allen Burnett was charming as the young man who almost by accident gets involved with teaching a bunch of kids to put their streetbeat into drumming. Harry has done some serious work with civil rights in the south, but 132nd Street in Harlem is a lot rougher neighborhood than the one he grew up in.
As "Harry and the Streetbeat" moves and builds from episode to episode, Harry gets a post-graduate course in the sometimes funny, but often bitter street smarts. The kids that want to drum with him are very challenging. Led by Richard, played by James Bigsbee, the boys are suspicious and defensive.They simply can't get their heads around some of Harry's basic ideas about right and wrong. For instance, Harry simply can't talk them out of getting in on the looting following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Harry also has trouble with women. His downstairs neighbor from the islands, Mrs. Conners,warmly played by Maisa Raines, frequently thinks that Harry is pretty naïve. His white girl friend, Heather, from back home was played with real passion and virtuosity by Meredith Mills. Heather's a woman that Harry did voter registration with in the south. They were very close, but somehow in ways that, he can't articulate and she can't accept, she doesn't fit anymore. Harry's new girlfriend, Ife, played with great strengh and humor by Breshaun-Birene Joyner, is very supportive, but quite demanding. She's the one who believes in Harry's casual dreams and then holds him to them. Harry tries to play both ends against the middle and ends up with Heather walking out immediately followed by Ife. Things go from bad to worse for our young would be Lothario. In a very funny scene, Harry, looking for love in the wrong places, ends up handcuffed to a chair by a magnificent dominatrix played by Roshaunda "Ro" Ross.
The men that Harry runs into are as varied as the women. There's Kevin Wallskog as Cecil, Harry's pompously obtuse, "blacker than thou" boss. Cecil fires him when Harry won't join the whole staff in shaving his head. Chris Gobles plays a thoroughly vicious cop who brutalizes Harry and then charges him with resisting arrest. Of all these, the strangest character that Harry meets is the eloquent street poet and junkie Jake, played by I. James Torry. Jake is supportive, but he preaches to Harry that you can never trust a junkie. Then at the height of the Harry's kid drum group's success, Jake cruelly proves it.
"Harry and the Streetbeat" is a new play from OyamO. There are some interesting story lines that need to be either expanded or cut. Also, the ending needs some work on its lead in and resolution. We're supposed to accept a teenaged murderer on the run, cheerfully leading a public performance of the drum group. The script tries to "have its cake and eat it too." Despite these criticisms,"Harry and the Streetbeat" is two and a half hours of involving theatre that practically bursts at the seams with good material and interesting scenes
Throughout "Harry and the Streetbeat" a sad old man shuffles through. He alternates shuffling with clumsily graceful dance steps. The only sentence that he can utter is, "I'm a dancer." He's played by the director James Mumford. Somehow it seemed as if James was always wandering through checking to see that things were going well and they always were.
"Harry and the Streetbeat" at the Bloomington Playwrights Project plays tonight and Saturday at eight with a Sunday matinee at two. The show continues with performances March 4th through the 7th.