Man in Love by Christina Anderson
Part of New Brooklyn Theater's The Second Century Reading Series
Christina Anderson’s play Man in Love may be set in an unspecified city during the Great Depression, but the issues she explores remain firmly rooted in the social justice concerns of today. Man in Love could easily become overwhelming or preachy by delving into so many of these topics, but manages to avoid doing so with its deft pacing and close attention to character. She focuses on two cadres of friends, all of whom subtly grapple with identity and secrecy while trying to survive in a failing city.
The first group consists of three neighbors in the area known as the Zoo—the neighborhood where African Americans live, and white people come to party without restriction: Darlene (played by Carolyn Michelle Smith), a pragmatist falling on hard times; Bernice (played by Poona Mohseni, with great composure), a glamorous, resourceful woman who hosts rent parties; and Paul Pear Jr. (Hubert Point-Du Jour), a restrained yet charismatic man full of contradictions. The friends look out for each other, and regularly share jokes and woes over card games—though Paul Pear Jr. is always eager to steer conversation to the game: “It’s your turn, Bernice,” being his impatient refrain.
The second group is easygoing Walker (Chris Cook), who pines for a nursing student named Hazel (Jodie McFadden), and welcomes into his home in the Spread (a middle district of the city) his friend Lee (Zach Wegner), who is fresh out of jail and desperate to make something of himself. Their introductory scene provides some of the more lighthearted moments of the play, as Lee teases Walker about his passivity and goofiness around Hazel, and they bellow back and forth in the small room, miming yelling up from the street to the apartment.
The two groups tangle in minor interactions throughout, but the threads that most connect their lives are the fight for survival, fear of the exposure of central personal truths, and the rising tension over the serial murders of black women in the Zoo. The first scene reveals that the murderer is Paul Pear Jr., so any suspense over the murderer’s identity is reserved for the characters only.
Point-Du Jour shines in his skillful inhabitance of Paul Pear Jr., adopting an alternately frenzied or methodical rhythm of speech for his poetic, mathematical chants to and about the women he kills and mangles. In the most chilling scene of the play, he walks down a street, describing the bones in the human body, but frequently interrupts himself to chat cheerfully with passing neighbors. All this while carrying the corpse of a woman he killed, contorted to fit under sheets in a laundry basket.
Playwright Christina Anderson said in the post-reading Q&A, “I knew I didn’t want to do a whodunit. I was more interested in the psychology. I read this essay called ‘Black Serial Killers and the History of Them’, which says there were black serial killers, but they were never found out because the women they were killing were black and the police didn’t care; and police had stereotypes that black men weren’t smart or patient enough to wait, to establish patterns of killing. They thought black men killed out of passion or rage only.”
The play benefits from the dispensing with such suspense, using dramatic irony to better effect. This is especially vivid in the scene when Darlene tells Paul Pear Jr. that she feels unsafe in the midst of these murders, and asks him to live with her. The tension builds until Paul Pear Jr. shocks himself by strangling her. Lucie Tiberghian’s superb direction of this scene in the context of a reading, rather than full production, has Paul Pear Jr. and Darlene standing unsteady, not touching each other but staring into each other’s eyes: Paul Pear Jr. with “a veil of coldness,” and Darlene with increasingly desperate agony. The intimacy of these moments is compounded by Smith’s vivid expression of horror as she understands her fate, and Point-Du Jour’s anguish as Paul Pear Jr. emerges from his stupor and realizes what he has done.
The choice not to structure the play as a mystery also allows the story to take its time with other characters, and to reveal their secrets in a way that prevents them from being defined solely by these aspects of their identities. The audience discovers, very gradually, that Bernice is a trans woman, that Darlene is agoraphobic, and that Walker and Hazel are both racially mixed and passing as white.
A central question of the play is: who deserves protection? Several characters speak to their sense of danger, with Darlene fretting over Bernice’s parties and asking, “You think a locked door ever stopped a white man? It’s near enough to make me want to call the police.”
“They wouldn’t come,” Bernice says.
Bernice’s cynical realism and self-possession make her later desperation all the more potent: Bernice begs Darlene to answer, if she were found dead in an alley, “Do I look like I could belong to somebody?” Darlene tries to evade the question, but ultimately says no, because she doesn’t consider Bernice a “real woman.” Heartbroken and angry, needing to hear that she deserves love, and safety, Bernice storms out. It’s the last time she sees Darlene. When she dies, the police don’t come.
This engrossing reading took place in the historic Bedford-Stuyvesant Akwaaba Mansion, as part of The Second Century reading series from the New Brooklyn Theater Company, which produces work by African-American women playwrights. The series continues with readings in April, May, and June.
Caroline DeLuca lives in Brooklyn, where she works as a writer, editor, and creative writing workshop facilitator. Follow Caroline at www.carolinedeluca.com.