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  • Writer's pictureJames Sheldon

In ‘Reparations,’ Righting Wrongs Comes With a Cost

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

By Elisabeth Vincentelli, NY Times 11/6/2019

James Sheldon’s play examines what happens when trauma is used to material ends.

Reparations Play by James Sheldon
Actors Alexandra Neil and Kamal Bolden in the James Sheldon play, “Reparations” Photo: Dex R. Jones

The new play “Reparations” gets underway in an innocuous enough manner. Two strangers meet at a book party; they end up at her Upper East Side condo, where they chitchat with flirtatious casualness before retiring to the bedroom; in the morning, she makes them breakfast. Reg is young and black, with the relaxed assurance of a guy about to score. Ginny is white and older, and ready to start dating again seven months after her husband’s death — Reg barely flinches upon learning she’s a grandmother.

So far, so rom-com.

Complications follow, of course, and based on the title of James Sheldon’s play, the characters’ racial identities or the fact that we are at the historically African-American Billie Holiday Theater, you may draw some conclusions about their general nature.

The play, however, is not about slavery itself. Red herring! Rather, Sheldon is interested in the cost of righting a wrong and what people are willing to do to get their due — and whether trying to overcome a dramatic event by blanking it out is a wise option. The story does follow a relatively predictable path at first, outlining the lead characters’ differentials in politics and access to power.

Reg (Kamal Bolden) is a struggling freelance travel writer and aspiring novelist, while Ginny (Alexandra Neil) is a publishing executive. His networking technique and sexy banter involve playfully — but perhaps not so lightheartedly — needling Ginny about her attitude toward his race.

A proponent of the “Can’t we all just get along?” school of thought, this limousine liberal can be blithely insulting and decries what she sees as the atomization of society. “Why do we have to keep putting everyone into these neat little boxes?” Ginny asks Reg. “Blacks in this one, gays in that. Transgenders here, Muslims there. And don’t forget the white working class — they want their own little identity box, too.”

Just as you start to think race and class could actually help make sense of the situation at hand, Reg drops a bombshell that changes the show’s course.

The pace of revelations only increases when Alistair (Gys de Villiers) and his Nigerian-born wife, Millie (Lisa Arrindell) — old friends of Ginny’s visiting from London — turn up for lunch after her night of passion with Reg. From then on, “Reparations” fully commits to a melodramatic style in its portrayal of people caught in moral quicksands.

Yet, as overcooked as it gets, the show exerts a pulp-fiction-style pull, thanks in large part to the nimble pace set by the director Michele Shay — who has staged several August Wilson plays and who earned a Tony nomination in 1996 for her turn as Louise in his “Seven Guitars.” Another asset is Bolden’s confident performance in the tricky role of Reg, an ambitious man whose decision to use trauma for material ends is both debatable and understandable.

“Reparations” gains extra traction from its production’s context: Part of the Billie Holiday Theater’s New Windows Festival, it is the first show in that venue’s 47-year history written by someone of non-African descent. According to a mission statement from the theater’s artistic and executive director, Indira Etwaroo, the festival aims to explore the intersectionality of identity but also “spotlight voices and perspectives that have not historically been presented at the Billie.”

The irony of a white male playwright benefiting from an inclusion initiative is unmistakable, yet fitting for a play that turns expectations on their heads.

Reparations Through Nov. 24 at the Billie Holiday Theater, Brooklyn; 718-636-6995, Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

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