Review: Voters on race, identity in 'Dispatches'

NEW YORK (AP) — When theatergoers arrive at "Dispatches from (A)mended America," they're presented with four broadly phrased questions about race and personal identity, which appear in printed handouts and overhead projections.

The prelude is meant to jump-start a dialogue — whether internal, verbal or even online, with audience members encouraged to use their smartphones or social media stations provided by the theater to weigh in before and after the performance (just not during, please).

Once the actors take the stage, tempers flare and polarizing viewpoints abound in this ambitious, frenetic play. Tough questions spawn still more questions with very few clear-cut answers to be had.

What does it all mean? Good question.

The show, which opened Thursday off-Broadway at the Theatre at the 14th Street Y, concerns itself more with the juices-flowing discourse than any conclusions that might be drawn from it.

Shortly after the 2008 presidential election, playwrights Brandt Adams and Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. set out from New York and drove across the American South to ask ordinary people from all kinds of backgrounds what the election of America's first black president meant to them, among other race-related questions.

Why the South?

"Slavery," the men say matter-of-factly. And, oh, "It's also where we're from."

Adams is white, Simmons is black. Their personalities are starkly different in many ways, but the partners have one significant similarity — both are staunch supporters of President Barack Obama.

The writers play themselves in this socially charged, if politically slanted, piece of documentary theater, accompanied by four additional cast members who play the respondents to Adams and Simmons' inquiry.

The talented, funny troupe, highlighted by the engaging Lori E. Parquet and Jacob Ming-Trent, portray a diverse array of individuals, though some characters lack of depth — due in part to the show's rapid-fire, hit-and-run style format — which detracts from the context of the speakers.

Their responses come in the form of monologues, or in conversations with the pollsters. Some of the interviewees are impassioned, while others seem disinterested or unsure of their true feelings.

When they appear, and intermittently re-appear with varying duration throughout the show, it is too often without sufficient introduction or cues, so that it's not always immediately clear who is speaking. In one hard-to-follow scene, the statements of unrelated characters are spliced together.

The show is one of two offerings in Epic Theatre Ensemble's election-season series dedicated to the question of what it means to be American. The other, Jeanne Sakata's "Hold These Truths," a biographical play about civil-rights great Gordon Hirabayashi, opens Monday. Both plays are presented with post-show discussions featuring cast-members and special guest speakers.

"Dispatches," directed by Ron Russell, Epic's executive director, has all the feel of a town hall meeting, with actors mingling with the audience at the 14th Street Y's intimate theater-in-the-round.

Of all Adams and Simmons' subjects, the most compelling may be Ming-Trent's Claude, an older black man with unflinching conviction, a booming voice and an easy way with words — words he doesn't mince when justifying how he uses his professional advancement to turn the tables on a lifetime of racial injustice.

"So now I'm in a position where I can get revenge," he says, referring to his hiring position. "And in my revenge, somehow get some kind of justice for my own people."

Despite his justification, Claude holds the president to a different standard.

"I'm hoping he's a bigger man than that," he says of Obama. "But you know, he's a young man. I'm close to 60 and he hasn't seen the things that I've seen."