by Tania Fisher
Veteran actor, writer, and director, Paul Calderon, once again does not disappoint. His latest offering, Master of the Crossroads, which he also directs, shows us why Mr Calderon is the recipient of both an Obie and Audelco Award, as well as being a SAG Award nominee.
An incredibly intriguing and unique play set in the ghettos of Baton Rouge, it explores themes of mental health, racism, internal struggles with life choices, and human weakness and strengths, during a fairly significant and life altering point in the lives of three people.
A well meaning, uneducated woman, seeks help from her ex-brother-in-law after she pops in to her ex-husband’s home to drop off medication to him – having been a combat soldier in the Iraqi war and now suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome –where, to her horrified amazement, she discovers that he has a stranger tied up to a chair in his living room at gunpoint and is threatening to, literally, crucify him.
One is immediately taken in by the minimalistic and cleverly lit set with the ambient music both setting the mood and placing the audience in the play’s relevant time and place. A convincing and authentic Yolanda (Sarah Kate Jackson) impresses us instantly, filling the stage with her energy and intensity and leaving us in no doubt as to her ethnic and cultural background during the unfolding scenario. Ms. Jackson gives a genuine and realistic performance and skillfully leaves behind any temptation to overplay what is a very high-end dramatic opening situation as her character, Yolanda, a white woman, turns to her black ex-husband’s estranged fraternal twin brother Jim-Bo, who is also an Iraqi combat vet and who is also suffering from PTSD, for help.
Yolanda offers an excellent juxtaposition against her ex-brother-in-law, Jim-Bo, who is played by the remarkably talented and magnetic Obi Abili. Jim-Bo has found religion and reluctantly obliges Yolanda and checks in on his brother to ascertain the situation for himself. There is a naturalness and believability from all the actors that are supported by Mr Calderon’s unwavering script and sharp direction.
The fear of the unknown is immediate upon the introduction of the character, Cornbread. Nixon Cesar is chillingly realistic in his portrayal of the mentally unbalanced Cornbread, who, does indeed, have an innocent stranger tied up to a chair and is preparing to crucify him. Mr Cesar has raw honesty that is so believable and captivating, that there were moments during his performance that the audience didn’t dare move or breath, and we could have heard a pin drop. Mr Cesar took us from intense violent danger and chaos, to eerily quiet, off-kilter mental instability. All the while, amidst the disgusting irreverence Cornbread has for his prisoner, the audience is quickly sympathetic to him despite the horror unfolding before our eyes. Mr Cesar skillfully conveys Cornbread’s honesty, even through unstable and misguided sources stemming from PTSD, alcohol, and drugs.
What is truly fascinating about this play is how effortlessly writer/director Paul Calderon takes us along for the paradigm shifting ride specifically through the Jim-Bo character. Startling and foreign to most of us, this quickly becomes a plausible situation we might indeed find ourselves in. Then, with magnificent ease, Mr Calderon has us both observing and almost taking part in Jim-Bo’s seemingly unpreventable transition to his antithetical state of being. We watch helplessly with both compassion and awe at a desperate situation that each actor has us believing is the only option left for them. Mr Abili’s final scene as Jim-Bo is particularly disturbing and soul wrenching.
Direction is very thoughtful and sensitive, allowing attention and focus to fall on the right actor at the right time, as well as giving pace with ebbs and flows. Mr Calderon manages to cleverly expose the struggle that each character has with their own personal demons, addictions and connection to their spirituality, as well as their hope to find strength to continuously fight to win in the way they perceive to be true.
It is plays such as this that make you believe in the true art of theater again, by relying on a strong script, excellent direction, and top level acting. When these aspects of a production are filled with such high caliber talent, the magical spell is cast, and a production does not need to rely on embellished scenery and expensive props. It is given exactly what is required, with no trickery or slight of hand. It is simply a thrilling, powerful, flawless play, and a theatrical gem that should not be missed.
Master of the Crossroads – Performances run January 16 – February 9 at The Bridge Theater (at Shetler Studios, 244 West 54thStreet between 7th& 8thAves). Run time: 1 hr. 40 min.
Primitive Grace Theater Ensemble
PLEASE NOTE: THIS PRODUCTION CONTAINS NUDITY, RACIST LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC VIOLENCE IN AN INTIMATE SETTING.