NEW YORK—No, the play’s not about food. The term toast, in black culture, is spoken storytelling, which typically tells of folklore heroes, but may delve into other, more current issues.
The setting here is the Attica Correctional Facility, just prior to the famous riots of 1971. In July of that year, a group of prisoners had submitted a Manifesto of Demands—which included human rights and improvements in living conditions—to Commissioner of Corrections, Russell G. Oswald.
Although Oswald had agreed to meet with the prisoners, at the last moment he declined. The riots followed shortly thereafter.
To call Lemon Andersen’s work “ToasT” a play is to understate its impact. It could more properly be termed a theatrical event.
In Cell Block D, a group of men make their home. The cell block is marvelously created by set designer Alexis Distler as a set of barred prison cells, with the walls of bars rolled about as desired by the various players.
Hard Rock (F. Hill Harper) is smart and progressive; he wants things to improve—and more quickly than seems possible. He is part of the group who will meet with the commissioner.
Hobo Ben (Jonathan Earl Peck), a reasonable sort, goes along with whatever may happen, but Stackolee (John Earl Jelks), a complainer and basically vicious, once killed a man simply because he felt the man had insulted him.
Annabelle Jones (Phillip James Brannon), a transvestite, offers feminine softness to the group.
A newcomer to the group is the Puerto Rican known as Jesse James (Armando Riesco). The others are tentative about accepting him, as he is the only white-skinned person in the group. But he is friendly and feisty, and soon makes friends. (And in the person of actor Riesco, does an impressive set of pushups.)
The guard, G.I. Joe (Teddy Cañez), has known Jesse from prior situations and warns the younger man about getting too involved with the more aggressive blacks.
Joe is ambiguous in his relationship with the entire group, as he tends to be overly chummy and on the same level with them.
Joe is warned by his superior, Sheriff Jody (Dan Butler), that Joe’s familiarity with the cons could lead to trouble. They might take advantage of him, which could lead to dire results.
Of immediate interest is the fact that Dolomite, after 27 years of imprisonment, is to be released soon. That fact causes a slew of strong, individual reactions among the group members.
Dolomite himself has mixed feelings about freedom. Although he’d love to work in a normal situation, it’s not easy for a con to get a job. He might have to resume his old life as a pimp—and he later sports the outfit to prove it (courtesy of costume designer Dede Ayite, who also provides drab prison suits for the men and feminine attire for Annabelle).
Tension later builds, and it is clear that a climax is nearing.
Director Elise Thoron, a playwright and educator, who has worked with playwright Andersen on several of his projects over the years, has done a remarkable job on “ToasT.”
Performances are so exceptional and the ensemble so smooth that it is difficult, and indeed unfair, to pick out one actor over the other.
The language of the play mixes down-to-earth street talk with poetry. Lemon Andersen’s work is a tremendous contribution to the theatrical literary experience.
It is obvious that for all involved it has been not so much a labor of love, perhaps, as a labor of passion. The fact that the play has been based on true events gives it an extra theatrical edge. And there is the sad truth that many social problems set forth in the play still exist today, both in prison, and in life outside.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with intermission)
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Closes: May 10
Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.