Love Story

Love Story

An “old-fashioned love song” is what the audience is promised at the beginning of On the Grounds of Belonging, currently onstage at Long Wharf Theatre. That promise will be fulfilled. But listen closely to lounge singer Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee) as she performs in her gold lamé gown at a 1950s-era microphone, and you’ll hear the warning: those old-fashioned love songs never turn out well. It’s a laugh line in the opening moments of this world premiere, but consider yourself notified.

The fact that things may not turn out well should come as no surprise. The setting is The Gold Room, a gay bar for black men in 1950s Texas. A white man’s intrusion into that already perilous space in the first moments of the play heightens the ever-present fear and tension in the lives of these characters.

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Russell (Calvin Leon Smith), who is black, and Tom (Jeremiah Clapp), who is white, first meet when Tom bursts uninvited into The Gold Room—in drag. It doesn’t take long before a spark is lit between them, and their next encounter burns with fine writing, well-paced direction and nimble acting to create one of the most compelling love scenes I’ve ever witnessed onstage.

Contrasting what he feels for Tom with what he once felt for Henry (Blake Anthony Morris)—the third point in one of Belonging’s two love triangles—Russell insists, “Love notices. Love looks back.” These lines landed hard on the opening night audience, which took to heart playwright Ricardo Pérez González’s invitation to “Be Joyous. Be Vocal.” When Tom and Russell stepped over the next forbidden line by kissing, the effect was breathtaking, and the audience cheered and applauded the consummation.

It’s easy to root for Tom and Russell in this “love song” of a story. It’s easy to feel angry and frustrated with Henry as he misreads, reacts to and denies his role in their fate. It’s easy to hate white bar owner Mooney (Craig Bockhorn) for his despicable threats. But one thing that makes On the Grounds of Belonging feel fresh is that González has resisted easy stereotypes. Whenever it begins to look as if he’ll do what’s expected, something cracks the platitude: wise old man Hugh (Thomas Silcott) is willing to wield a baseball bat; callous young Henry is capable of love and hurt; old racist Mooney is himself gay, and he and his black peer, Hugh, understand one another in some ways. Finally, the seemingly token woman, Tanya, is given a most important role, becoming the sage who delivers the play’s most powerful speech. As Tanya, Lee rises beautifully to this challenge, striking earlier themes like a gong that resonates through her moving monologue.

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We’ve come a long way in 60 years, but On the Grounds of Belonging takes care to remind us we’re still facing the headwinds of many of the issues that threaten to knock over Russell and Tom. “When white folks get their ego bruised like that,” Tanya says after one incident, “people die.” It’s just one of several mentions of the potentially deadly dangers of being black in America.

Audience members are primed to think about Belonging as a story about not just yesterday but also today when they’re instructed to literally step into the bar upon arrival. “Welcome to The Gold Room,” the ushers say as they hand out programs and yellow #youbelong buttons, encouraging you to wander into the floor-level set as if you’ve just wandered off the street and into the club. Set designer Wilson Chin’s attention to detail—signs on the wall, sheet music on the piano, a glass of melting ice cubes on the bar, stubbed out cigarettes in the ashtrays—seals the effect.

At the same time, the set is delightfully simple. Scenes shift between the bar and the street outside with minimal fuss and maximal effect. Likewise, no attempt is made to reproduce the bar’s level of detail in a secret meeting place in a park or in Russell’s bedroom, yet both places feel just as authentic.

On the Grounds of Belonging is the opener of artistic director Jacob Padrón’s first full season with Long Wharf, a play he calls “a bridge to inaugural line-up next year.” Padrón gave the show an ebullient introduction on opening night, noting, “This is a play that is in conversation with the world” and promising much more theater “of, for and by the community” in the shows to come.

The play is, as promised by Tanya’s ballad, an old-fashioned story with some well-aged tropes—love triangles, forbidden love, one great love of a lifetime—and more than a few parallels to that most iconic love story of all, Romeo and Juliet. But it’s also, according to Padrón’s promise, in conversation with our city and our time.

On the Grounds of Belonging
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Showtimes through November 3
(203) 787-4282

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson.

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