“Lift” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday November 30, 2014)

October 28, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Walter Mosley
Directed by Marshall Jones, III
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

What Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” did for the complacency of the 1960s, Walter Mosley’s “Lift” attempts to do for the beginning of the twenty-first century. These important plays collectively challenge the racial, cultural and class consciousness of the American landscape. “Lift” uses the trope, here an extended metaphor, of the elevator – the lift – and its unexpected passengers in a New York City skyscraper under attack by terrorists to deliver its message. Of course, the attack itself it also an important metaphor for all that threatens necessary shifts in racial, cultural, and class consciousness.

As they wait for the elevator bank at Peabody, Resterly, and Lowe, Theodore “Big Time” Southmore (Biko Eisen-Martin) overhears a conversation between Tina Pardon (MaameYaa Boafo) and her friend Noni Tariq (Shavonna Banks) about Tina’s upcoming date. After a brief ride together in the elevator, Noni exits leaving Theodore and Tina alone in the elevator. And after another brief encounter with Mr. Resterly which results in Tina trying to hide her identity, Theodore and Tina are again alone. Shortly thereafter, the building is attacked by terrorists and the elevator car drops and is pushed forward in the shaft. The two are trapped and all hell breaks loose between them.

In their attempts to get out of the soundproofed elevator car (no cell signal), they confront each other’s weaknesses, fears, prejudices, and shortcomings. Theodore is a thirty-something black man who has worked up the ladder from maintenance to strategic planning. Tina is a Somailan-born woman in her late 20s. Both have skeletons in their closets best left to the audience to discover. These two successful professionals wrestle not only with the racism of white John Thomas Westerly (played with appropriate unbearable arrogance by Martin Kushner), they wrestle with their own stereotypes about themselves as persons of color, including the relationship between black women and black men, black women dating white men, and their well-defined class consciousness. For example, Theodore questions Tina’s choice of friends in Noni who is a twenty something African-American woman: “I don’t know. I mean, how does a smack talkin’ girl definitely out of the hood fit together with a French speaking college graduate who spends weekends in Cape Cod?” And Theodore asks Tina, “I thought you were tired of black men wantin’ you to help them?”

“Lift” is a complicated play and although Mr. Mosley’s representational play is entertaining and informative, it does not allow the audience to get to know the characters: all the audience does is listen. As mere interlopers, the audience does not get a chance to feel for the characters. Still, the playwright raises a bevy of rich and enduring questions – intentionally or otherwise – that need to be answered if the racial divides (both those between races and those within racial constructs) in the United States (or elsewhere) are ever to be breached. Can a “privileged” white majority ever understand the cultures of persons of color? Can persons of color ever understand what is perceived to be a white “privileged” majority? Why is it considered racism when the white majority uses certain words and phrases to reference persons of color but not considered racism when persons of color use the exact same phrases in reference to one another? Or is this still racism? Is it something else? These are just a few of the enduring questions raised by “Lift.”

Theodore and Tina want nothing more than to finally be understood by another human being. Theodore dictates before the elevator falls – so Tina will know what happened between them should he perish – “But you know we got over all that mess up here in the dark. It’s like we raised up above it and looked down and looked up and saw that there was nothin’ but us. You and me, we broke through this in here with nobody listenin.”

“Lift” insists the audience understand this to be the task for all of humanity including black and white citizens who need to know precisely what has happened between them. Can persons of different racial, cultural and class differences “break through” those barriers? What can raise us up above it all, enable us to look up and look down and see that there is nothing but “us” trying to make sense of living together on the fragile planet Earth?

Marshall Jones, III’s direction is straight forward and, along with Mr. Mosley’s script, leaves the audience somewhat disconnected from these well-rounded characters. Rocco Disanti’s lighting and projection design, Toussaint Hunt’s sound design, and Andrei Onegin’s set design do more to heighten awareness of the danger Theodore and Tina face than does the script they heroically mine for its emotional content. These two splendid actors deliver remarkable performances defined by authenticity and believability. “Lift” asks whether humanity has what it takes to lift one another up.