WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — “Esai’s Table” is a beautiful and powerful cautionary tale reflecting the tragedy of the young African-American male experience in today’s America. Nathan Yungerberg’s surreal drama is receiving its world premiere production by JAG Productions at the Briggs Opera House Oct. 10-27, and Thursday’s performance was at times entertaining, at times breathtaking, at times disturbing, always riveting and, finally, deeply moving.
JAG Productions is Vermont’s own African American theater, founded and directed by Jarvis Green. The play was developed at New York City’s famed Cherry Lane Theatre and White River Junction’s JAGfest, and will be presented off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane March 19-April 25.
Three young black men find themselves at a dinner table in a basement, seemingly trapped by the strange old man who has enticed these very different folks, supposedly for only 15 minutes, with offers of a brighter future. The sensitive Adam Iverson was on his way to his little sister’s dance recital. David Tyler Jones, an assured up-and-coming trumpet player, is due at a professional gig. And the belligerent and angry Michael Ferguson is hating every moment away from his infant son.
Esai Wallace launches the three unwillingly onto a magical and often unpleasant journey of self-discovery. Without leaving the basement, they find themselves at the mercy of nature, and more dangerously, themselves. Even Esai is forced to confront himself and his choices.
Before it is over, deep and shocking tragedy ensues. Giving away more of the plot would be unforgivable, but there is redemption. And joy.
Part of what gives “Esai’s Table” its amazing power, is this production, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, and its superlative cast. Benton Greene delivers Esai as fatherly, both strict and reassuring, but with an assuredness that cracks.
Cornelius Davidson takes Michael from the stock character of the angry young black man to his deeply hurting — and caring — core. Dmitri Carter gave a particularly sensitive performance as Adam, who wants to be everything to everyone in order to find himself. And Marcus Gladney Jr. was David, proudly carrying on his family’s musical heritage, angry with himself for wanting something else. In short, all three are suffering the ordinary angst of growing up – with extraordinary pressures.
JAG’s imaginative physical production, with stage design by David Goldstein, underscores the storytelling powerfully. Despite the appropriate costumes (Celeste Jennings), and elaborate lighting (Kate McGee), sound (Brian Hickey), projections (Dan Kotlowitz), illustrations (Patience Lekien) and animations (Kaitlin Hahn and Mira Ram), it’s not a slick techno-production. Other than a rather lame final passageway, it forms a cohesive whole, complementing rather than competing with the storytelling.
“Esai’s Table” is a deeply searching story about discovery and redemption, as much the audience’s as the characters.