Sunday, December 17, 2017

Downtown Race Riot - A Matter of Perception

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just because one person has an opinion of how they stand in a cultural context, doesn't mean people with different social perspectives share that same opinion. This being one of the messages in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's powerful drama Downtown Race Riot.  The show now being presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Greenwich Village, New York City, 1976. 18 year-old Jimmy "Pnut" Shannon (David Levi), and his best friend Marcel "Massive" Baptiste (Moise Morancy), are hanging out at Pnut's apartment before joining a riot set to begin in nearby Washington Square Park. The area locals (mostly older and Italian) planning to drive out the "undesirable" element (i.e. members of a different racial makeup than their own) that have moved into the neighborhood as of late.

Pnut and his older sister Joyce (Sadie Scott) live with their drug-addicted mother Mary (Chloe Sevigny), whose days are spent watching TV and getting high. Mary is also someone who has learned to game the system. Which is the reason she receives monthly disability checks for her so-called “chronic back pain”. She's also constantly coming up with different get-rich-quick schemes, such as saying Pnut suffered brain damage due to his eating lead-based paint chips when he was younger. Mary's action's being the reason Joyce is planning to leave home and never come back.

Though Mary is unaware of it, Pnut is probably the only reason she's still alive. Her son using a series of neighborhood contacts to keep tabs on his mother during her various drug-fueled episodes. These people doing their best to make sure she gets home safe.

While Pnut is planning on joining the riot because it's expected of him, Massive is chomping at the bit to dive right in. Massive is originally from Haiti and has had more than has share of prejudicial blowback since his arrival in town. Originally settling in Harlem, Massive and his family were often harassed by African-Americas for the way they dressed and talked. They eventually moving downtown to "get away from them".

Treasuring the acceptance he has received from the various elements in his current neighborhood, Massive will do whatever is necessary to keep their respect. However, even in a community, there are some lines you do not cross, such as getting involved with the sister of someone from a different racial background. A fact Pnut learns when two neighborhood toughs (Cristian DeMeo, Daniel Sovich) come by to make sure he bring Massive brings to the riot, where his friend will be taught a very hard lesson to that effect.

Pnut's failure to follow his instructions will result in some very serious consequences. Not only would be branded a traitor and thus become persona non grata to those in the neighborhood, but his mother would loose the protection she has been given and, as such, be at the mercy of anyone who tries to sell her drugs; or take advantage of her when she is unable to defend herself. Pnut then trying to decide whether to do the right thing, as well as figure out just what is the right thing to do?

It's not long before a hard truth emerges. You cannot save someone who doesn't wish to be saved. Massive and Mary being two such examples. Massive is fiercely protective of the status he thinks he has gained, while failing to see that those he counts as allies may not feel the same way. As for Mary, she has no intention of even trying to kick her drug habit, despite the damage it causing to both herself and her family.

In another ironic twist, it is Mary who ultimately realizes the futility of offering someone a lifeline who doesn't want it. Her understanding of this becoming a key point in the show's final moments.

Director Scott Elliott displays a good understanding of the text. Many of the scenes having the feeling of a ticking time bomb, as the audiences waits for the inevitable explosion. One that will reveal which, if any, of the characters will emerge unscathed.

Levi gives a powerful performance as Pnut. A perennially sullen young man, trapped in an unhappy home life, with a deep seated anger that threatens to consume him. Morancy is fine as the stalwart and laid-back Massive. Someone supremely confident in his neighborhood standard, while firmly aware of the responsibilities that come with such status. Scott does well as Joyce. A young woman who wants to get far away from the place she no longer considers home, while realizing she still as deep roots there. DeMeo and Sovich nicely project threatening airs as the two street hoods.

Special mention must be given to Sevingy's excellent performance as Mary. The character turning out to be both a study in contradictions, and the most multi-layered character in the piece. She perfectly willing to use her Joyce and Pnut, and also sleep with whomever necessary, in order to get what she wants. At the same time, she displays a deep intelligence and is fiercely protective of her children. Mary apparently believing that she has the right to take advantage of the two of them, but no one else does.

Derek McLane's set of the Shannon apartment suggest a place well-worn and depressing. The feeling adding to the overall ominous atmosphere of Rosenfeld's work.

Downtown Race Riot presents an intimate and thought provoking examination of people for whom survival is the best they can hope for, provided they can first live through today.

Also in the cast is Josh Pais.

Downtown Race Riot
by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld

Featuring: Christian DeMeo (Tommy-Sick), David Levi (Jimmy "Pnut" Shannon), Moise Morancy (Marcel "Massive" Baptiste), Josh Pais (Bob Gilman), Sadie Scott (Joyce Shannon), Chloe Sevigny (Mary Shannon) Daniel Sovich (Jay 114)

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Yael Lubetzky
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Fight Direction: Unkle Dave's Fights-House
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Properties Supervisor: Matthew Frew
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Iovino
Assistant Director: Marie Masters
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: December 23, 2017

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