Broadway/Off-Broadway Review

Returning Home; What Became of Us

In Home (on Broadway at Roundabout Theater Company’s Todd Haimes Theater) and What Became of Us (Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2), the protagonists serve double duty as narrators. Both plays deal with returning to your roots after journeys of alienation. The plays’ structure could put audiences at a distance since we are being told what happens instead of being shown directly. Such plays usually work better as novels, but thanks to polished performances and insightful direction, the action is immediate and relatable. Home is more effective than What Became of Us, but both works are heart-warming and full of home truths.

Home Roundabout
Tory Kittles, Brittany Inge, and Stori Ayers in Home.
Credit: Joan Marcus

Home by Samm-Art Williams who passed away at 78 just days before previews started for this first Broadway revival, was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company Off-Broadway in 1979 and transferred to Broadway for a run of 278 performances in 1980, receiving a Tony nomination for Best Play. As he has done with Purlie Victorious and A Soldier’s Play, director Kenny Leon rescues another neglected, vital work of the African-American theatrical canon with a fresh, exciting production.

The main narrator here is Cephus Miles (charismatic and multifaceted Tory Kittles) who relates his adventures from land-loving North Carolina farmer to idealistic conscientious objector to urban drifter to returning to the soil of his home town. All the other roles of both genders are played by the versatile Brittany Inge and Stori Ayers who narrate as well.

Home Roundabout
Brittany Inge, Tory Kittles, and Stori Ayers in Home.
Credit: Joan Marcus

Cephus is a spinner of tales, delivered by Kittles with spice and splash, which punctuate Williams’ poetic narrative entertainingly. After being rejected by his first love Patti Mae Wells (a bubbly Inge) and serving five years in prison for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, Cephus sells his land and moves to NYC with dreams of making it rich. Instead, he encounters discrimination for his criminal record and plunges into a whirlpool of drugs, alcohol and homelessness. Disillusioned and aged beyond his years, he returns to North Carolina to find redemption amid the simple rural pleasures of farming and family. Kittles exquisitely charts Cephus’ journey, seamlessly transitioning from enthusiastic, fun-loving young man to shattered, recovering alcoholic. Inge and especially Ayers take on a galaxy of diverse characters, giving each distinct body language, accent and attitude. Ayers’ barroom floozy Nora is especially funny as she quickly flies the scene when Cephus runs out of money.

Leon’s staging is smooth, detailed, and fast without sacrificing depth. All three actors speak Williams’ densely poetic lines rapidly, but every word is intelligible and conveys reams of subtext on the characters, the social and economic background and the setting. Speaking of which, Arnulfo Maldonado’s versatile but suggestive sets along with Allen Lee Hughes’ painterly lighting and Justin Ellington’s evocative sound design, convey the lush bucolic atmosphere of Crossroads, NC and the stark concrete jungle of NYC.

Home is like a filling comfort-food meal, savory and sweet, full of tasty tales and tangy poetry.

What Became of Us
Rosalind Chao and BD Wong in What Became of Us.
Credit: Ahron R. Foster

Shayan Lotfi’s What Became of Us also employs narration to tell a story of wandering and reclaiming the idea of home. The two-character piece is performed by two separate casts portraying siblings Q and Z. I saw Rosalind Chao and BD Wong (the other ensemble is Shohreh Aghdashloo and Tony Shalhoub). Lotfi’s script follows the lives of the siblings from birth and the journey from the “old country” through old age and death in “this country”—presumably the USA. The playwright omits specifics on the characters’ national origin so that actors of any ethnicity can play the roles. As in Home, both characters narrate much of the action, occasionally directly addressing and engaging each other.

The story is fairly familiar. Q and Z’s have a hardscrabble upbringing as their parents struggle to establish a new life after leaving an unstable home nation. Q, the sister, works hard in the family-owned store, makes sacrifices in her education and personal life while Z, the brother, rebels, striking out on his own to establish a separate identity from his immediate circle. After years of alienation and a trip to the home country by Q, the two reunite and reconnect.

Lotfi’s story is endearing but too much of the play has Q and Z describing the events of their lives rather than living them in front of us. Some of Lotfi’s dialogue is striking and detailed, such a frightening store robbery endured by Q. Both Chao and Wong deliver flavorful, layered performances but are hampered by the static script as is director Jennifer Chang who does her best moving the two about on Tanya Orellana’s stark white set with a mobile bench-like piece as the sole piece of scenery. Reza Behjat’s lighting does most of the work to shift the scene and suggest setting. What Became of Us has charming and warm moments, but lacks the imagination and spark of Home.

Home: June 5—July 21. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Todd Haimes Theater, 227 W. and St., NYC. Running time: 90 mins. with no intermission.

What Became of Us: June 4—29. Atlantic Theatre Company Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St., NYC. Running time: 75 mins. with no intermission.

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