One young man has just killed another in Checkers’ convenience store on Braddock Avenue. There’s a young woman with a baby, probably fathered by one of them. The neighborhood (“The Street,” they call it) crackles with tension, full of conflicting rumors, people thinking they know everyone’s else’s business. Both the young men’s families are threatening revenge.
That’s what gradually unspools throughout Act 1 of Marlon Erik Youngblood’s “Comfort Zone,” now in premiere (for one more weekend) at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.
The act ends with the elderly observer, Checkers, breaking his silence and passionately reminding both families that it’s only a generation or two since the neighborhood (their families included) took care of each other rather than tearing each other apart.
If the tense situation sounds like the Montagues and the Capulets (“Romeo and Juliet”), that’s just what I said when “Comfort Zone” first appeared at Pittsburgh Playwrights a year and a half ago as the best one-act play in that year’s Theatre Festival in Black & White. It just needs more development, I thought
Now it has it, having been expanded with the addition of a second act. But it feels less finished now than it did then.
The commitment in the writing is just as strong. Mr. Youngblood certainly has writerly skills that are worth exercise and nurturing. The raw, strong language sounds realistic. And he dramatizes a social chasm that we need to confront.
But in its one-act form it ended with enigmatic hope. Then, the chief action was Checkers’ stepping out into the community instead of hiding behind the mask of genial passivity. Now, he retreats to his store and the center of action moves to the father of the slain young man. His proposed pact with Checkers ends the play with an enigmatic, incomplete action. A complex and threatening story is left hanging in the air.
Some would say that digging down into community resentments forces us to see the justice on both sides. But to me, it seems as though Mr. Youngblood has dug a deeper dramatic hole than he can lift his story out of. He may have to keep working on this. At 95 minutes including intermission, there’s certainly still space. Call it a play in progress, just as he is a promising playwright in development.
Even as it stands, “Comfort Zone” provides juicy roles, led by Checkers, played by Pittsburgh’s go-to dramatic elder, Kevin Brown, who registers all of Checkers’ personal torment. He is well balanced by Bryant Bentley playing Slick, the voice of the Street, intense without empathy, constantly (if far too repetitively) spreading rumor and counseling disengagement.
No more able to soothe the tumultuous neighborhood is the aptly named Rev. Worthy, played with professional earnestness by the company’s founder and artistic director, Mark Clayton Southers. The battling parents are played by Cheryl El-Walker and Monn Washington – the latter having to negotiate that enigmatic partial conversion in Act 2. Jamilah Chanie plays the young woman, whose entry with her baby carriage in Act 2 is a truly moving moment.
Mark Whitehead directs on a simple but realistic convenience store set by Kenneth Ellis.
It’s no wonder “Comfort Zone” feels unfinished, given the complex sociological and moral accounting it requires. Checkers has the right idea in urging a return to a simpler, clearer code. But is it possible?
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.