“On the Grounds of Belonging”
Long Wharf Theatre
Long Wharf Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere play, “On the Grounds of Belonging,” in a solid, extremely well-acted production. As written by Ricardo Perez Gonzalez, this new work is generally excellent, if not completely without some minor flaws. The play is set in 1950s Houston and focuses on a biracial, gay relationship and the dangers surrounding this romantic situation. Gonzalez writes extremely good dialogue and “On the Grounds of Belonging” passes by in a quick, engrossing hour and forty-five minutes. Portraying the two lovers at the center of the show, both Jeremiah Clapp, as Thomas, and Calvin Leon Smith, as Russell, are pretty terrific and they are surrounded by a small cast, who all give fine performances.
If there is a flaw in “On the Grounds of Belonging,” it really has to do with some ambiguities at the conclusion of the play that render the last ten minutes or so of the show a little confusing. Aside from the that problem, the playwright has done a great job of creating characters that the audience can care about, in a provocative love story that offers no easy answers. Considering that this is a world premiere play, Long Wharf Theatre is commended for offering such a professional and good-looking production, with superb direction by David Mandizabal, who works wonderfully with both his actors and his design team. The fact that “On the Grounds of Belonging” centers around a gay relationship between two men—in which no punches are pulled—might turn some audiences away. However, if you go in with an open mind, this show at Long Wharf Theatre offers its share of rewards.
The playwright purposely sets his play in Houston in the 1950s, a time in which the Jim Crowe laws were in full force, as well as the ways in which gay people met were under extremely hazardous conditions. “On the Grounds of Belonging” is set in a bar, referred to as the Gold Room, which is strictly for gay black men to meet. Across the street, though, is the Red Room, for whites-only, and it is when Jeremiah Clapp, as Thomas, a Caucasian gay man, ducks into the Gold Room to avoid a raid that sets the play’s story in motion. It is at the Gold Room that Thomas meets and falls hard for Russell, a gay black man, portrayed by Calvin Leon Smith, and the two begin a secret and extremely forbidden romance.
Clapp is very sympathetic as Thomas, and his strong performance is matched by Smith. Indeed, their scenes together are enormously compelling, as well as being very “graphic,” so to speak, in displaying the love these two characters have for each other. Surrounding this couple, Thomas Silcott is good as Hugh, the owner of the Gold Room, with his portrayal equaled by that of Craig Bockhorn, as Mooney, owner of the Red Room. And despite their differences in color, the fact that both Hugh and Mooney are gay give them an unspoken and unexpected kinship.
Also in the company is the powerful Blake Anthony Morris, as Henry, who shares an on-again/off-again relationship with Russell, which is threatened when Russell takes up with Thomas. And, as the one woman in the show, Tracey Conyer Lee is scintillating as a silky chanteuse, who is the font of a great deal of much-needed advice for the biracial couple. What’s more, Lee sings seductively and nearly walks away with the show. She looks fabulous in the costumes designed by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, whose work in this show is period perfect. “On the Grounds of Belonging” is set in an attractive bar setting, nicely designed by Wilson Chin, which, with the changing of scenery, can also serve as a bedroom or an outside street.
Where “On the Grounds of Belonging” fails a bit is in the details of how the play eventually turns out. Without giving too much away, there is a fight scene late in the show, which leads to a denouement that renders the ending of the play somewhat confusing. Still, if this play is to have a future beyond Long Wharf Theatre, those concerns can be addressed and sharpened. As it is, the fact that Ricardo Perez Gonzalez’s play focuses on a hitherto unexplored subject, namely how gay men of different races met in the South in the 1950s, automatically makes “On the Grounds of Belonging” a significant and important new work. This show is also, by turns, entertaining, funny, and frightening, which only adds to the power of this play. And while some audience members may be taken aback by the show’s subject matter, “On the Grounds of Belonging” at Long Wharf Theatre, flaws and all, ultimately demands to be seen.
“On the Grounds of Belonging” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through November 3, 2019. For tickets and more information, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: Calvin Leon Smith and Jeremiah Clapp
Photo by T. Charles Erickson