Lights Rise on Grace, the world premiere by Chad Beckim, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, has all the elements of a compelling drama.
The play takes us into the dynamics of an intricate set of relationships between a young Chinese-American woman (Grace), her African-American lover/con/ex-con/husband (“Large”), and his Caucasian-American lover/con/ex-con/godfather to his child (Riece).
The play spans seven or so years, takes place on the streets and in the alleys of urban America, in its cells and prisons, and in the apartment of Grace, where she struggles to make a life for herself after being thrown out of her parents’ home at 17 because she refused to accept an arranged marriage.
As the framework for a story we are intrigued; the sheer complexity of its design and the psychological implications that design inspires have us wanting more.
Unfortunately, Lights Rise on Grace does not deliver its promised rich exploration. Its presentational, fragmented style does not allow for subtlety and its resulting empathy. As a result, we are left wondering what this world has wrought.
At the core of the story is the relationship between Grace and Large, played with remarkable versatility by Jeena Yi and DeLance Minefee.
Grace travels the universe in this play, beginning as an extremely shy 16-year-old high school student who falls head-over-heels in love with Large. After he inexplicably disappears (having been, unbeknownst to her, sent to prison), Grace hits the streets, seemingly having sex with lots of strangers in alleys. Eventually, she proves extremely resourceful, working several jobs at once and moving into her own apartment.
Ms. Yi gives each of these divergent “Graces” their own authenticity, allowing us to accept them even if we do not understand how they would ever be connected together.
Large’s universe is equally “large.” Raised in an abusive family, where his brother and father continually call him “faggot,” Large’s whirlwind romance with Grace is idyllic, and Large feels the bliss. When his brother threatens to take his “Chinese girl” for himself, Large goes ballistic and savagely beats him into paralysis, with prison the result. In prison, Large meet Riece, and soon the two young men become lovers and Large’s life is transformed once again. When Large returns to Grace after prison, he spawns even more identities.
Mr. Minefee handles Large’s fragmented character with commitment and skill, allowing us to glimpse fleetingly the psychological conundrum the character must feel.
Riece, played with humility by Ryan Barry, does not have quite as many light-years to travel, and we are grateful for that. As a child, Riece might have been sexually abused: I say “might” because in the script’s fragmented style we are offered but a single line that hints in that direction. In prison, he becomes the lover of an older inmate; eventually, it seems, Riece becomes quite the boss of the cellblock: he protects the younger Large by beating up several of his victimizers. Eventually, he becomes the loving godfather of Large and Grace’s boy child.
Mr. Barry approaches Riece with honesty and simplicity, keeping his multiple identities unified around a single, if inexplicable, desire to love and support others.
Directed by Michael John Garcés, Lights Rise on Grace never blinks or fails to commit to its rapid-fire style of presentational storytelling.
Luciana Stecconi’s sets are brilliant, allowing for rapid changes in locale and time, all the while keeping their strong feeling of imprisonment. Dan Covey’s lights compliment the set perfectly with shadow and light.
Costumes by Ivania Stack are simple and urban, and sound design by James Garver adds an appropriately eerie effect.
From my point of view, the play suffers most from its portrayal of prison as a transformational environment: to be sure, prison reduces humans to their most basic. As a child and teenager, I was raised on the grounds of a prison, and viewed first hand the cruelty of prisons and prisoners alike. Violence, and the threat of violence, permeate the place.
The transformations that occur in prison have less to do with people’s sexual orientation than they do with people’s ability to experience honest, open human emotions. For power is palpable, the power of not only guards over prisoners but certain prisoners over other prisoners. In prison, power is stripped of its artifices, those very artifices that make power endurable to civilians.
The prison experience portrayed in Lights Rise on Grace has little of that pressure cooker effect. It is almost as if the subject that playwright Chad Beckim really wanted to explore was not prison as a real phenomena, but as a metaphoric space, a space where men seek intimacy and support from other men, opening doors of transformation and acceptance.
If that was Mr. Beckim’s desire, then he succeeded to a point, but as the play’s real focus ultimately falls on Grace and her transformation, we are left wanting more.
Who is this extraordinary young woman and how did she travel from the center of a knowable, traditional universe where she was virtually enslaved by her parents to the furthest reaches of an unknown freedom, and survive? Nay, more than survive; for this Grace thrives, remarkably.
That is the story I wanted to know; but, as the title implies, when the lights rise on Grace the story ends.
Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.
Lights Rise on Grace plays through April 26, 2015, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.
John Stoltenberg on Lights Rise on Grace in his column ‘Magic Time!‘ on DCMetroTheaterArts,