By Sue Henninger
Throw Pitchfork, written and performed by Alexander Thomas with no intermission at the Kitchen Theatre Company, through May 7, (607) 272-0570, www.kitchentheatre.org. KTC Advisory: “The show has adult language and situations, and it is recommended for ages 16 and up.”
It takes a talented, highly committed, and fearless actor to not only pen, but perform solo in a play written so close to the bone. With the expert assistance and personal objectivity of director Sara Lampert Hoover, Alexander Thomas manages to do just that in a spellbinding performance.
Though Thomas was the only actor in the play, he noted in the post-show talkback that it was truly a collaborative effort, enhanced by the creative team of Tyler M. Perry (Set and Lighting Designer), Sergey Levitskiy (Sound Design/Original Music) and Lisa Boquist (Costume Design). How the sound and lighting are used to show escalating emotions is especially powerful.
The play opens with Willie Thomas, a workingman who self-medicates with alcohol, being pursued by demons (represented by loudly barking, but invisible, dogs) that only he is privy to. The scene has the feel of one that has been repeated over and over again with the same outcome because, try as he might, Willie can never outdrink or outrun his past.
Willie has four sons and Thomas miraculously evolves into each of them as he shares their stories. Sammy, the oldest boy, has turned to drugs to numb his pain. He knows all the professional jargon and buzzwords, none of which induce him to seek treatment.
“I’m from a dysfunctional family,” he explains as if that was all the justification he needed to sell and use drugs.
Next in line is Jesse whose anger at the world bubbles to the surface with his first sentence. He doesn’t try to explain why he commits crimes, he tells the audience that he’s no victim and that nothing stands in his way.
“God helps those who help themselves,” he asserts.
Cleve (not Cleveland) is the third son. Though his older brothers torment him incessantly from a young age, Cleve loves to read, write, and tell stories to his younger brother, Alex. Cleve’s goal in life is to go to college, not to jail like Jesse. He creates his own world and dedicates his childhood to moving toward a more positive future.
Alex, the youngest child, overflows with nervous energy and manages to simultaneously be the most hopeful, yet most lost, family member. Feelings of helplessness lead him to seek power wherever he can. He pretends to be a superhero, aligns himself with Cleve, and even sneaks drinks of Daddy’s hidden liquor. Alex’s trip to Alabama by Greyhound bus is heartbreaking. An incident in a southern restroom shows just how quickly racism can transform a child’s excitement and anticipation into distress and disillusionment.
“Whatever you do, don’t be like me. I ain’t sh-t,” Willie frequently laments.
But who was Daddy? His backstory reveals a man caught up in circumstances that quickly spiraled out of his control. Since then, everything in his life has been a hardship or a struggle. What seems to eat away at Willie the most though is that, since his escape from the Alabama jail he was unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment in, he is no longer free to use his own name. This becomes crystal clear in a wonderfully written scene between Daddy, Cleve and the first grade teacher. Willie may not be allowed to claim his own identity but he will make sure that Cleve is allowed to be who he really is, rather than the person others think he should be.
Alex’s strongest memory of his father is of the time Daddy threw a pitchfork at him. He closes the play by throwing his own “pitchforks” – drugs, stealing, welfare, AIDS, the bottle, and everything else he believes ruined his family, concluding with the state of Alabama. As his riveting monologue drew to a close, the stage went dark. There was a moment of intense silence where the audience seemed to be holding its collective breath, as if waiting for something more. But the lights went on and, as Thomas took a bow, people rose to give him a standing ovation.
Intellectualizing issues like systemic racism can be tempting. However, watching this play isn’t an academic experience; it’s a pure, raw, emotional one. It is virtually impossible not to feel the pain, the disappointment, and the fear of the various family members caught up in a system that always seems to work against them and trying to survive any way they can. Two of the brothers managed to escape the vicious cycle they were caught in, but two did not. Thomas still marvels at this.
“We [Cleve and I] were inches away from going down the same path as our older brothers,” he said.
Sadly, this play continues to be as relevant today as it was in 2002 when it first debuted.