Black manhood is envisioned as a delicate garden full of blossoms and wilts in Donja R. Love’s compelling new play “Soft,” receiving its world premiere at MCC Theater in Manhattan.
Adam Rigg’s classroom set, encircled by vibrant flowers and audience members, lulls you into a sense of tranquillity before the clang of prison bars announces the start of the play, which takes place in a youth correctional facility’s English class. Despite the distress at the heart of these young men’s circumstances, Love convincingly offers a sense of hope, showing how outside encouragement and a commitment to self-improvement are crucial to their liberation.
A phenomenally grounded Biko Eisen-Martin as Mr. Isaiah, the facility’s English teacher, helps the Whitney White-directed production skirt the trope of the saintly educator who brings out the best in his pupils. With sparse sentimentality but firm understanding, his performance creates space for Love’s larger themes of redemption in a system set up to keep young Black men locked away.
As the play begins, Isaiah, conveying he’s not much older than his late teen students through daps and earnest hype-manning, is impressed by their recent essays on “Othello,” particularly Kevin’s (Shakur Tolliver) observation that the abuse and isolation felt by Shakespeare’s tragic moor are not so different from the circumstances that landed them inside here.
Some, like hotheaded Bashir (Travis Raeburn) and the extravagantly queer Dee (Essence Lotus), maintain that their crimes were victimless — borne out of a necessity to survive. Others, like the easygoing crack dealer Jamal (a fantastic Dario Vazquez), have no such illusions. Eddie (Ed Ventura, in the production’s most physical role), meanwhile, is simply happy to be away from his abusive home.
Isaiah’s own past includes a brush with the law, as he is somewhat threateningly reminded by his boss, Mr. Cartwright (Leon Addison Brown): “We’re all where we are because of somebody’s good graces.” If the students must turn to Isaiah for approval and mercy, the teacher himself is resigned to Cartwright’s godlike status within the facility, his voice periodically issuing commandments through speakers.
Caught in the double bind of toxic masculinity and a racist revolving-door carceral system, where does the buck stop? When one student escapes through suicide, his close friend (or was he more?) Antoine, played by a simmering Dharon Jones, opts out of the bind by refusing to speak. Heavy with guilt, Isaiah tries to have his students verbalize their discontent, resulting in (sometimes contrived) arguments, and physical fights incredibly choreographed by UnkleDave’s Fight-House.
Instructed by Love’s script to feature no onstage crying, the production finds instead catharsis through White’s direction, attentive to the characters’ physicality and complex relationships to one another. Qween Jean’s costumes cleverly locate a chic aesthetic somewhere between orange jumpsuits and athleisure. (How the flamboyant Dee cuts up and alters his outfits is a charming nod to queer creativity).
All is in service to Love’s belief that hope springs eternal, if not here, then in our next lives, as graciously evoked by Rigg’s simple, almost schoolyard-like set and Mauricio Escamilla’s harp-heavy original music during an ethereal coda. In earlier plays like “Sugar in Our Wounds” and “one in two,” Love has demonstrated an admirable commitment to thoughtfully depict Black queerness in all its forms. The new work broadens the canvas, reminding us (in the words of Tennessee Williams) that we are all “children in a vast kindergarten, trying to spell God’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks.”
Love doesn’t lean on such grandiose statements here, but he powerfully conveys a paradoxical modern malaise — a sense of unsupervised supervision, where it feels we’re both left to our own devices and under someone’s watchful eye. His “Soft” is a lovely encouragement to let our guards down, and leave the hardness to our hardships themselves.
Through June 26 at MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.