Monday, February 18, 2019

"Savior Samuel" - A Mystical Journey That Takes You to a Surprising Destination

L-R - Cheryl El-Walker (Virginia Clayson), Jonathan Berry (Rory Dobbs) & Wali Jamal (Benjamin Clayson) Credit: Ricco Martello

Don't let the simplicity of the distilled online description of "Savior Samuel" fool you. 

Now getting its premiere run at the Trust Arts Education Center in Pittsburgh, the play by Mark Clayton Southers is briefly described on the Pittsburgh Playwright Theater's website as "an African-American family trying to survive in the Midwest circa 1877 when an unexplained event changes their lives as well as those who interact with them." A good starting point, the pithy statement barely scratches the surface for, as the play gathers momentum, it also becomes momentous.

Southers starts his play with a tete-a-tete between a fifty-something couple eking out an existence on their Kansas farm. Virginia (Cheryl El-Walker) is upset because she's spotted some vomit outside her rustic yet cozy home and believes it to be a sign that her husband, Benjamin (Wali Jamal) has been overdoing it again with the moonshine he makes. 

L-R - Cheryl El-Walker (Virginia Clayson) & Aaliyah Sanders (Essie Clayson) Credit: Ricco Martello

Quick to deny her accusations, Ben asserts his head of household status to which Virginia grudgingly acquiesces, although the spousal give and take continues and gets even more inflammatory when they discover their deaf, 14-year old daughter, Essie (Aaliyah Sanders) is the source of the vomit. The reason for her intestinal distress - she's pregnant.

Knowing of Benjamin's chronic trysts with the bottle, Virginia suspects her husband may have been the incestuous perpetrator, especially since no other male has recently come a calling.  The tension are broken with the arrival of Rory Dobbs (Jonathan Berry), a preacher with the good looks of a young Billy Dee 
Williams or Denzel Washington whose character does double time as a doctor. 

Dropping in for a visit while making his ministerial circuit ride, Dobbs gets wind of Essie's pregnancy and also listens to the story of how a pack of wolves tore the couple's two-year old son limb from limb one sad day in the past. While trying to save the boy from the beasts, Benjamin lost the movement of his left arm, which he can now only leave dangling inertly by his side.

The crux of the play centers around who the father of Essie's's baby might be. Southers masterly weaves clues here and there but not enough of them that allowed me to come to a conclusion about the boy's paternity until the very end, when the play climaxes with a shocking conclusion.

Like his mentor, August Wilson, Southers in "Savior Samuel," has the talent to take everyday life and transform it, elevate it, even make it mysterious and hypernormal. While the dialogue is facile, easily understood and unpretentious, it's also interesting, homey, true to its local patois and often packs a poetic quality.  

The plot line follows the newborn, first leaving his biological mother against her will in an intensely powerful emotional scene, then to his temporary family headed by Dobbs and his barren wife Nellie (Dominique Briggs), who sees the child as a substitute for her own lost child. Finally, the child is sent to a Catholic orphanage that serves the needs of Native American children. It's in the highly regimented environment that the child's true father is finally revealed.

L-R - Sam Lothard (Dukem) & Jonathan Berry  (Rory Dobbs)  Credit: Ricco Martello
Director Monteze Freeland selected an exemplary cast and even went so far as to visit the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf to make his choice for the actor to play Aaliyah. A tenth grade student at the school, Sanders makes her stage debut in the play, although you'd never know she'd never trod the boards before from the polished way she portrays her character.

As Benjamin, Wali Jamal puts in another stellar performance underscoring why he was named 2018's Performer of the Year by the Post-Gazette. As Virginia, Cheryl El-Walker, who alsodoes  the hair and makeup design, cuts the right balance between sass and wifely submission, a woman who knows how to engender domestic comfort while at the same time speaking her mind when needed.

Jonathan Berry exudes charisma as the preacher/doctor who, during one dramatic invocation spoke with a stentorian voice that reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As his wife Nellie, Dominique Briggs handles the difficult role of Nellie with ease and aplomb showing a remarkable transformation of character 
that's natural and  believable.

Someone who continues to amaze in roles I've previously savored, Sam Lothard as Dukem portrays a character who's modest and somewhat bashful but whose cheerful demeanor, good naturedness and bent for humor add to his inherent likability.

Accomplished actor Susie McGregor Laine portrays a Mother Superior with a cinematic quality, the likes of which echo Peggy Wood in "The Sound of Music," Edith Evans in "The Nun's Story" and Anne Bancroft in "Agnes oi God" but with more personality and humanness and  less officious self-righteousness 
As Sister Bethany, Marsha Mayhak may not have a major role, but she delivers the critical dramatic lines with polished finesse that bring the play to an astonishing finish. 

As much as I liked Souther's "Miss Julie, Clarissa and John," staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights two years ago, I think "Savior Samuel" has even more potential. 

While Miss Julie had a good deal of success outside of Pittsburgh (it was featured in the 2017 National Black Theater Festival and the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe), the writing in "Savior Samuel" is so meritorious and captivating, I feel the play has an off-Broadway and pan-national theater future. See it now before it becomes famous.

"Savior Samuel," a production of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater is at the Trust Arts Education Center, 805 Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh, through 

March 16. For tickets, phone 412-377-7803 or

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