By Michael Buzzelli
When Mo Foster (Thaddeus Daniels) misses a payment, Davis “call me Mister Harlin” (Reginald “Reggie” Lee Wilson) buys his ancestral home and orders him and his son, Cricket (Lamar K. Cheston), to hit the bricks by noon the following day. But the house itself isn’t ready to give up on the Foster family.
The barriers of the space-time continuum break down in Layon Gray’s “Searching for Willie Lynch,” as several generations of the Foster family inhabit the surreal residence.
In 1925, Rahman (David N. Roberts) and Phebe (Ashley Victoria Scott) rush into their home seeking refuge from an unfortunate incident. In 1965, Basil (Layon Gray) and Charlene (Nicollette Ellis) are about have a baby, despite the fact that finances have tightened unexpectedly. In 2008, Peanut (Anthony Goss) stops by to pick Cricket up and take him the poles to vote for America’s first Black President, Barrack Obama when Mr. Harlin comes knocking.
If you’re wondering why there is no character named Willie Lynch in a play called, “Searching for Willie Lynch,” look no further. Lynch is the name of a slave owner who allegedly read a letter to teach his methods to slave owners on how to keep Black people divided for 300 years.
In a moment of anger, Cricket recites a portion of Lynch’s insidious letter to Mr. Harlin. He says, “Don’t forget you must pitch the old Black male vs. the young male. You must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves, and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves. You must use the female vs. the male, and the male vs. the female.”
It’s a dark moment fueled by rage, but it paints a bigger picture of the conflict between Mr. Harlin and the Fosters. It paints a frightening picture of race relations in America. Knowing the problem, however, can get us to a solution.
“Searching for Willie Lynch” has mystical and mythical elements that enhance a generational story. It’s a base it is a story about love – romantic, spiritual and familial.
All of the actors are superb with many strong performances throughout as the generations crisscross through the house.
Ellis’s Charlene is an overworked woman in the last month of her pregnancy. She exudes grace, confidence and love. She’s a joy to watch.
Cheston plays Cricket with aplomb. He is dynamic and charismatic. He is also uniquely outfitted in a vibrant dashiki supplied by Kelly Davis.
Goss’s Peanut gets a heart-rending monologue. It is a powerful performance.
Phebe is probably the most underdeveloped character in the piece, but Scott hands in a layered performance.
Gray, the writer, director and actor, infuses the story and his character with a deep, devoted love. You can feel his fondness for the characters and the actors oozing out of him.
Herb Newsome’s set is simple yet homey, stuck in the early Twentieth Century. Kudos to Olga George for properly appointing the set with artifacts of each era.
“Searching for Willie Lynch” is a play about connection. It is the kind of play we need after a pandemic. It was a perfect play to watch after hearing that a certain divisive (read racist) political candidate is running for president again. It is a play that reminds us that we need to stand up and fight injustice, to fight for your family. Fight for love.
It’s also a play that reminds us to vote.
“Searching for Willie Lynch” runs until November 20 at the New Horizon Theater company, inside City Theatre’s new rechristened Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.