Reviewed by Brooke Clariday
Theatre Reviews Limited
“It was just a simple dinner,” is far from the truth of Darryl Reuben Hall’s “The Dinner,” a fiercely accurate drama involving race equality, the birth of white privilege, and media brutality in our nation. This play, given life thanks to the money-sharing Kickstarter, is a post-Civil War piece that tells the story of Booker T. Washington’s journey of becoming the first African American to dine at the White House.
“The Dinner” begins with Booker T. Washington, who was invited to the White House to discuss race with President Roosevelt in 1901. Washington, who was one of the strongest leaders of race equality, battles with the American community, the press, and white senators, representatives and governors that speak out against him. “The Dinner” vividly shows the audience Booker’s journey from a slave’s son, to becoming a dominant leader of the African-American community.
Using quick pacing, the show is an emotional journey through the eyes of Washington. Hall does a brilliant job at capturing the realistic nature of the dinner’s backlash. His script is a fierce combination of incredible historical accuracy, with at least 50% of the text taken directly from speeches and written letters, and originality to create a moving piece of theatre. There are no apologies for word choice, using thick, harsh voices to say horrific lines ringing with racism, that send shivers down the audience’s back with every over-pronounced harsh N.
Shockingly, Booker T. Washington enters the stage wearing blackface, and the audience receives a sick, on edge, feeling in their stomachs. Instantly, the mood is set with lighting, wide and bright as he enters, dancing and holding a newspaper that said, in their harmful words, “disgusting to have a Negro at the White House.” In turn, the lighting shrinks to his face when the number is over, closing in as Washington wipes off the make-up, shreds the newspaper, and strikes at the audience with his disbelief for the media’s reaction to a dinner.
Is it a play? Is it a musical? This question lingers throughout as the drama starts to form a not so obvious arch. As a production, it is very New York Theatre Workshop-esque, using very minimal set pieces with great costumes to create the feel of the beginning of the 20th century. The staging is excellent for the space, using the lighting to masterfully create tone. Musically, there is dance, a Capella singing, American patriotism numbers, and a big kick-line-riffing-feel-good gospel number. Hall belts out “Come to my house, my brother,” and the audience is left feeling brought together as a community, much like what Booker T. Washington wanted by attending the dinner.
The cast does a brilliant job at interpreting Mr. Halls’ script. Nicholas Tucci and Darrel Blackburn give stand out performances with their riveting portrayals of racist, foul senators that speak out against Booker. The blood boils when they set foot onstage, but their teeth clenching performance gives the show weight. Roosevelt is portrayed accurately, describing his struggle and not realizing his actions would affect Booker as much as it did Mark Montague does a brilliant job at embodying Roosevelt, from his mannerisms to the way he pronounces “spot on.”
Struggling, though, is the climax of “The Dinner.” The pacing starts to break away towards the end, and instead of finding a pivotal moment, the plot moves non-linearly, and never finds a moment as shocking, or game-changing as the beginning. Dragging is the 20 minute monologue in which Washington delivers the entire 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech. It is hard to keep focus on it, as the context is never given in a way that an audience today could understand. It requires a deep level of concentration to hear every word of the vast speech, and the after effect makes the scene end on a sour note.
Saving that though, is a simple, yet beautifully done ending to the play. Using a circle effect, the audience is taken back to the beginning of Washington’s story, as a table is set with fine china, and Roosevelt and Washington meet in the middle, shake hands, and sit for dinner. As they do, the stage black outs, and the audience is left reeling in the aftermath that takes place from this simple dinner.
“The Dinner” comes at a time when the nation is facing headlines of police brutality, the confederate flag, and re-evaluating race. This piece invokes deep thinking and a well needed, important conversation on race in America. With many historical shows making their way to the Broadway stage, such as “Hamilton” and “Amazing Grace”, “The Dinner” could potentially fit into this trend, and shine.