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A Thought-Provoking Play about Love, Racism and History

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Harlem. 1973. Two black lovers caught in a dysfunctional romance at a time of heightened racism. What could possibly go wrong?

A one-woman show adaptation of the novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” was performed at the University at Albany’s Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m. It was originally written by James Baldwin in 1974 who was known for his social critiques as well as publicizing the African-American experience, even including those of gay and bisexual men.

This was a “Literature to Life” stage presentation, being a verbatim adaptation, and featured actress and artist Channie Waites as the lone performer that night.

Literally accompanied by only a chair onstage, she had to alternate between the various characters in the book, clearly an impressive feat since she’d memorized lines for a one-hour-and-fifteen-minutes performance.

The story follows Tish (real name is Clementine) who is 19 and in love with Fonny, a 22-year-old sculptor (real name is Alonzo). Their romance gets interrupted when Fonny is wrongfully accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman whose whereabouts are unknown, and he is jailed. It’s later revealed a racist cop was behind his accusation. More drama ensues when Tish reveals she is pregnant and she becomes determined to free Fonny before their child arrives.

The audience must pay close attention to whatever Waites said because as she started to switch from character to character, it would become confusing.

Waites did an impeccable job at embodying each character. Her shifts in voice, body posture, facial expressions and walking style helped to try to distinguish which character she was playing in the moment. Through her characterizations, she used Tish (the main character she embodied) to give many clues to what her relationships were like with Fonny and her family. This was an intriguing way to have one character illustrate other characters who never technically showed up onstage.

Except for perhaps three brief times, there was no music at all, the stage filled with Waites’ own words. Her outfit for the night was simple—a multicolored mini-poncho, a dark long sleeve shirt, dark blue jeans and sneakers.

While this was probably unintentional, having just one actor (Waites) onstage throughout the performance spoke to how lonely Tish’s battle to get Fonny free sometimes felt.

Tish struggled to get enough money to pay for a lawyer to help, trying to convince her close loved ones to chip in although this was quite the lost cause as her family did not make much. The lawyer was also said to be white, something her family disliked as they felt they did not want a metaphorical white shining knight to rescue Fonny.

One particularly moving scene was when Waites acted as both Tish and Fonny, jumping from one character to another, when Tish visited him in jail and spoke on the phone with him, even holding up a hand as if planting it against the glass window between her and Fonny.

“I hope no one ever sees any loved one through glass,” she poignantly said, as if to the audience.

Thirty-five minutes in, the performance paused and the audience were engaged in pretending to be associates as if in like a law firm. They were encouraged to ask Waites (still onstage in character as Tish) questions like where the so-called raped Puerto Rican woman is now and how exactly her family can afford a lawyer.

This spoke truly to how this was a “Literature to Life” performance and I’ve never witnessed such a performance where the audience got to directly interact with a character onstage.

The performance’s thought-provoking commentary on racism (particularly institutional racism), poverty and a romance frowned upon by the general society at the time, all helped make this performance and the novel itself relatable to audiences.

The show was both preceded by and followed with an open discussion with members of the audience who gave their opinions about racism, the current political climate, white privilege and poverty. These segments were moderated by actress, writer, singer and educator Lisa Strum who wanted the audience to remain engaged.

An African-American woman in the crowd said that she lived during segregation back when she was much younger, visibly moving numerous fellow audience members.

“It’s one thing to learn about [segregation],” she said. “It’s another experience to it.”

She went on to say that it’s important to fight for truth and continue to teach American history to kids so they know what previous generations had to go through.

The performance was mostly a success, save for a rude elderly audience member literally snoring a few times throughout (which visibly annoyed some nearby onlookers), and Waites’ acting helped give a sense of the struggle low-income African-Americans in the 1970s had to experience.

As it happened on Feb. 28, it was an apt conclusion to Black History Month on campus.

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