NY Theater Review Paulanne Simmons


When the three young African-American men in Nikkole Salter’s new play, Carnaval, take a trip to Rio de Janeiro, the alleged purpose is to celebrate the life of their late friend. But they are really expecting a vacation filled with wine, women and song… especially women.

Raheem (Gabriel Lawrence), who has mysterious business connections in the country, sets his friends up in a beautiful house by the beach and introduces them to a series of girls whose favors they can purchase with a minimum of cash. The plan is for Raheem to work on his business deals while the other two indulge their carnal desires.

Demetrius (Bjorn DuPaty), a married policeman with something of a conscience, is at first hesitant. He sees the poverty behind these girls’ profession and remembers his wife and daughter back home. But Raheem soon convinces Demetrius he owes it to himself to let loose and have a good time, and before long Demetrius has his own woman.

Jalani (W. Tré Davis), the dead man’s brother, is still a student. In fact, for some reason, he is carrying around his money for next year’s tuition. But his mind is not on school at the moment. All he can think of is how many women he can get in a day.

Despite their high hopes, it doesn’t take very long for the vacation to go sour. Jalani is too immature to stay out of trouble. And Raheem’s business associates in Rio are not the type who take kindly to being thwarted in their professional goals.

National Black Theatre made a fortunate choice in Salter’s play. This OBIE award- winning writer has a tremendous ability to hook the audience into an entertaining story and then give the story a twist that slams everyone back into reality. In this case that reality is the sordid international sex trade and the people who take advantage of impoverished and desperate women.

But what makes this well-written play even better, is the excellent cast and Awoye Timpo’s fine direction. DuPaty, Davis and Lawrence have a physical and emotional connection to their characters and to each other that makes their story both gripping and totally believable. This is ensemble acting at its best.

Timpo makes brilliant use of Emre Emirgil’s videoscape to turn the stage into the airports of New York City and Rio, a room overlooking the beach or a New York City night club. Timpo also keeps the tension high with the help of Alan C. Edwards’ lighting, Eric Sluyter’s sound design and his own relentless blocking.

When it comes to thought-provoking drama, National Black Theatre certainly has the recipe nailed. Get a hard-hitting story from an ace writer and give it to a talented group of theater professionals. The result is transformative.

Carnaval runs through Nov. 16, National Black Theatre, 2031 Fifth Ave. (212) 722-3800 or visit www.nationalblacktheatre.org.

Photos: Christine Jean Chambers