Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking at Penumbra Theatre

Publicity photo for Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking - Photo by Ann Marsden

In his lovely Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking (Penumbra, 270 Kent St., St Paul, through May 23, playwright Gus Edwards presents us with two gentlemen of a grand experience of life, inhabiting the trash strewn corner of a New York City park, watching the world pass by – and insulting and sniping at each other with downright indecent relish. To say that Abe and Henry have a complicated relationship is to put it mildly. They shared a job, a woman, a life. They can’t stand each other; and yet their need for each other is total. This mismatched dependency makes the play in equal measure frightening and reassuring – and great fun.

This is a park bench play, a minor but muscular genre. Often, these plays have a simplistic message: gee, how sweet that even in advanced age we can make real emotional connections. Edwards probably wouldn’t disagree with this, but in Two Old Black Guys he has other, far more interesting fish to fry: how twisted memory can become addictive, how we come to terms with hateful life partners, how Death stalks our old age. I’ll resist the temptation to tell you what happens in the last scene of Act 1; but I will say that Edwards avoids easy sentimentality and manages to create genuine narrative momentum. Is he breaking new dramatic ground? No; still, here is a writer at the peak of his considerable powers.

And ditto the cast. What a pleasure to see salts like James Craven and Abdul Salaam El Razzac inhabiting these characters. They have contrasting styles – Craven blustery, larger-than-life, theatrical; and El Razzac arch, contained, playing his role with cinematic precision. They combine perfectly. Spark fly throughout. I was sorry to see the play end.

The Penumbra stage is a gem and director Lou Bellamy and his team of designers take full advantage. The costumes (by Matthew J LeFebvre) are crisp and lovely, the lighting (Michael Wangen) is deep and rich and the set (Kenneth Evans) superbly captures the backwater NYC park. Bellamy chooses some tasty jazz (Miles Davis if I’m not mistaken) to take us nicely through the scene breaks. Everything works.

So have a good dinner and then go to Penumbra and bask in the presence of Craven and El Razzac.  Their already first rate performances will only get better.


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