‘Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine’ tackles tough talk about race in USA

No matter how much you study the Harlem Renaissance or the Great Migration, read books by famous black authors or listen to Thelonius Monk, you will not really know what it is like to be black in America unless you are black.

But Judith, an earnest, well-educated white woman in Ruben Santiago-Hudson‘s exciting new play “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” believes she can.  Zeke, a black man working at a homeless shelter, knows that she can not.

This is the fulcrum on which this play revolves. Like an approaching  tornado, the 100-minute play begins calmly. But soon we feel a change in the air as an ill wind begins to pick up. Before you know it the tempest hits full force — metaphorically twisting words and meanings and intent — before it quickly passes leaving bewilderment and resentment in its wake. It’s a wild ride that ends too quickly and without resolution.

Playing through May 3 at the Two River Theater in Red Bank (NJ). Santiago-Hudson’s play, which he also directed, is set in New York City in the year after 9/11. The first half is filled with a lot of laughs and knowing nods from both white and black audience members. It kind of lulls you into the idea that intelligent people can discuss race rationally. Then comes the hard truths followed by the tears. If your opinion(s) are not somewhat changed by the time you leave the theater, you haven’t been paying attention. But you may be left with wanting more — how can the conversation continue and just who will be listening?

Judith (played by Merritt Janson) and Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden) in the world premiere of “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave, Red Bank, (Photo: Michal Daniel)
Judith (played by Merritt Janson) and Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden) in the world premiere of “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave, Red Bank, (Photo: Michal Daniel)

Judith (Merrit Janson) has a lovely apartment and a prominent piece of art featuring four black people called “The Family” in her living room. Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden), once a high-flying member of the Brooks-Bothers-suit-and-Gucci-shoes crowd, has come to pick up  her grandfather’s clothes she is donating to the shelter where he now  works. It’s a  place that once helped him after he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — adjust enough, be more white, be less black, whatever, to hold on to his well-paying job.

They talk. They argue, politely. It escalates to where he is calling out the names of great black musicians, she white ones. He black authors, she white ones. She finally screams Liberace! He, Little Richard!

He struts and swaggers like a character with attitude from the 1970s  TV series “Sanford and Son.” She is amused, but concerned his “act” undermines his argument and she so wants to help him make his point, preferably in a NY Times magazine profile she wants to write. Janson and Dirden spar together well. Zeke inserts sobering comments, like he doesn’t have a problem loving this country, “But every now and then it’s gotta love you back,” he says. Or, “Why can’t a black man be a winner, once in awhile?”

Judith can tell Zeke is educated and wants to know why he works where he does. Isn’t he wasting his life working beneath his intellectual capabilities? He wants to  know why she cares so much.

Besides being a source for a prominent article on race,  she says understanding black culture is in  her DNA. Her great-great-great grandfather (I think that’s the right number of greats) taught at an integrated school he founded. Interesting.

So she invites him to dinner to meet her boyfriend Randall (Andrew Hovelson), who is white, and her best friend Janeece (Roslyn Ruff), who is black and a VP of marketing at Turner Cable TV.  Just some civilized conversation about race relations post 9/11 with hors d’ouevres and wine. Yeah. Right.

That was a mistake because Zeke arrives dressed as a black Rhett Butler which solicits the show’s loudest and longest laugh. Has he dressed to provoke? If so, it works as Janeece takes an instant dislike that only escalates, especially when she asks for white wine and Zeke responds with a what-else smirk. Randall is open-minded, but  insists his ancestors accepted blacks, they are blameless concerning slavery, so let’s move on. Then things go from bad to  worse. Fisticuffs ensue and Zeke is asked to leave.

Everything changes from bright lights to a subterranean corner below Grand Central Station where we meet the oracle-like Zebedee (a superb Charles Weldon), an ancient black gentleman who puts things in perspective by telling Zeke, and then Judith who has followed him, stories about his struggles as a boy living down South and serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.

The scene seems like it’s from another play, however. It helps give the work a feeling of hope that change is possible, that we all eventually will work things out or at least try harder, be more open, at least listen without interrupting. Who knows. Janice and Randall aren’t there to be enlightened. Zebedee doesn’t offer a road map to success, just heart-felt stories about fear and death.

Mostly enjoyable as theater, the concern is will the play change the race conversation in any way?

Each performance of  “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” will be followed by an audience discussion with facilitators from the production. That’s great. I just wish more of that aspect, learning and understanding and talking about how to move forward,  were a part of the play. Nevertheless, it’s a thought-provoking experience well delivered in word and deed by Santiago-Hudson. Can’t wait to see what his next project will be at this adventurous NJ theater.