Review by Wanda Sabir
At its core, “The Urban Retreat,” a play by A. Zell Williams directed by Darryl V. Jones at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre through April 6, is a father’s redemption story; however, it is also the story of a son who strays from his creative roots. Actor Lenard Jackson’s Trench Deep finds himself caught and entangled looking for answers as does his reluctant mentor and teacher, Chaucer Mosley (Adrian Roberts), who is also running from demons.
When the two find themselves in the same room again, the set a reconstruction of their last moments together, the men are able to return to a time when truth was a guiding principle and authenticity and integrity its bottom line. Both men have been searching for forgiveness, both have been writing in the dark. This retreat is an opportunity for each to finally have an audience and get heard. However, what happens next is not what the publisher or manager have in mind.
Lenard Jackson’s Trench Deep is conflicted. His fiancée is not returning his calls and this retreat which he has orchestrated – a power move to get back at Mr. Mosley, Robeson’s high school English teacher who put him out the class, yet whose lessons he never stopped learning. Then there is the proud Black man teaching Black boys in Chicago, while he is denied audience with his own son.
To further complicate the story, there is an unsolved murder of Trench’s best friend, Setty Rexpin (actor Jamey Williams). “Ghosted,” he decides to follow Mosley to the retreat after a failed encounter on the Chicago Metro. Why now is a question left unanswered.
Mosley, in route to see a publisher, he thinks to finally after seven years get an offer to publish his book, “Sonlight,” learns of Trench Deep’s desire to hire him as his ghost writer or editor. With monetary and future publishing options as incentives, Mosley agrees to the terms and flies from Chicago to California where he meets Trench.
The scent of Suge Knight rises in the person of Lakeidrick Wimberly’s bullying Pooh Butt, Trench’s manager against Thomas C. Hird and Derek Magee’s scenic design depicting multiple contradictions – relaxation and chaos, creativity “tastefully” couched in a faux fur multi-media set design: graffiti against video footage of greenbacks, pills and shaking booties – juxtaposed against coastal redwoods, brilliant sunsets and the Pacific Ocean.
The house built just up the hill from where Tupac lived and the city where he attended high school – the references are intentional as the character Trench Deep skates along a surface he cares not to penetrate as he and Mosley settle into an uneasy groove at first as ghosts haunt them both – unexplained music, earthquakes, bloody phantasms in the shape of Setty Texpin, who haunts everyone from Mosely to Pooh Butt to Angie.
An unsolved murder mystery, the guilty party is in the room in Mill Valley and Setty wants revenge. It is Emily Kristner’s free radical Angie, Maggie’s stuttering assistant, who, able to navigate both worlds, fan and critic, pushes the work to its stunning legal conclusion. Kristner’s character also surprises audiences with her freestyle skills. Jamey Williams, an internationally recognized spoken word artist, has some great scenes too. The poetics of hip hop are integral to A. Zell Williams’s work, often serving as a life preserve.
Trench has depth; however, as a gangster rapper, urban fiction author, his persona capitalizes on a pathology detrimental to his people. Pooh Butt and publisher Maggie Farmer (Miriam Ani) just want him to sell product – they are pushy.
It doesn’t matter the toll such work takes on Trench’s life, a life he more than once thought of ending. It is through conversations with former teacher Chaucer Mosley that Trench remembers hip hop’s radically hopeful message, something his friend Setty Rexpin gave his life for. Mosley has regrets too, but we cannot undo the past.
“The Urban Retreat” is a fast moving play that leaves a few dangling threads untied like who dies in the end; however, the fine cast and impeccable direction makes it work. Adrian Roberts’s Chaucer Mosley’s focus on his novel and Miriam Ani’s Maggie Farmer’s use of Trench to pave her dream career peddling important work, not urban garbage, shows the two in similar light. However, as Mosley and Trench go deeper into the work, they find in each other what they thought lost.
Visit lhtsf.org or call 415-474-8800. The play is at the Burial Clay Theater, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco, Thursday-Saturday, April 4-6, 8 p.m. evenings, two shows Saturday, 3 p.m. matinee and 8 p.m.
Listen to an interview with Acting Artistic Director Darryl Jones on Wanda’s Picks Radio Show: http://tobtr.com/11238453.Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.