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Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): ‘Welcome to Fear City’

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Fear City is the South Bronx in July 1977. There is nothing particularly unique about that July in that year in that place.

Fear, it seems, is a way of life in the South Bronx.

Bryce Michael Wood and Vincent Ramirez. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Kara Lee Corthron’s Welcome to Fear City operates in much the same way that introductions do.

Upon first meeting the citizens of this African American community 40 years after the fact, we are engaged by them as stereotypes, as TV characterizations all too familiar to 2017 American culture.

As the story progresses and the stereotypes multiply, and twist, the reality of the world forces itself upon the theatrical occasion.

If all this description sounds a bit obtuse, well that’s because Corthron’s Welcome to Fear City is a bit obtuse too, in a conscious sort of way.

The surprise embedded in the story of this play is the play, so I’m not about to give any surprises away.

Let it be sufficient to say that the power of the surprise will depend upon the audience (or audience members) who see it. The more naive the audience, the more powerful the surprise, and the more effective the play.

Nicole A. Watson directs Welcome to Fear City. She keeps the vision clear and simple, with costumes (Trevor Bowen) and sets (Frank J. Oliva) appropriately stylish. Tony Galaska’s lights and Justin Ellington’s sounds add to the rhythms and colors of the world.

The story focuses on the aspirations of E. As played by Dyllon Burnside, E is searching for his place in the world, and the fear is more psychological that real (although I have no doubt that it would have been real in the 1977 Bronx).

Dyllon Burnside. Photo by Seth Freeman.

An aspiring poet and rapper with sexual identity issues, an ailing mother, and few job prospects, E wants more than anything to discover a way out.

His hip friend and master DJ, Cheky, played with beautiful energy by Vincent Ramirez, does his best to keep E focused and safe.

Meanwhile, E’s intelligent and gifted sister, Neesy, played with vulnerability by Adrian Kiser, has returned home lost and desperate after an unsuccessful California college and career move.

Also, E’s mother, Wanda, played with deep denial by Cherene Snow, doesn’t know what to do to pull her family out of its spiral.

Yaegel T. Welch, Bryce Michael Wood, Knightley Hill, and Kevin Minor round out the ensemble, playing a variety of characters from dancers to lovers.

Mr. Wood turns in a particularly flashy, purple-shoed Jacques who sweeps E off his feet.

In many ways, Corthron’s Welcome to Fear City represents a post-narrative future for theatre, as it seems to ask: are the stories that theatre offers an audience as important as the people themselves?

And I’m not talking about the people as in the characters but the people as in the actors.

Adrian Kiser and Cherene Snow. Photo by Seth Freeman.

What if the real story being lived for the audience was the story of the actors themselves?

Yes, that’s a Pirandello-construct for the 21st-century: in this case, four characters in search of a play, or rather an audience, or rather an identity that expresses who they are to an audience in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in July 2017.

You won’t exit Welcome to Fear City with a catharsis of understanding, no pity and fear will have exited your body like Oedipus’s, no supreme laughter will have lifted your soul above the gods.

You will probably leave the theatre, however, a little bit wiser for the shattering of expectations you’ve just experienced.

And the gall that it sometimes takes to do just that.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

Welcome to Fear City and The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) continue through July 30, 2017. Tickets to CATF and for Wild Horses can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, by calling (800) 999-CATF (2283), or by purchasing them online.

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