For decades theatergoers have warmed to plays set in rooming houses. Playwrights have been fond of the form too, because it permits an otherwise random mix of boarders to become an engrossing cast of characters with intriguing lives and intertwined story lines. If you add plays set in hotel lobbies, you’ve got a shelf full of scripts—albeit some now gathering dust.
Just when you might think the formula was past its prime, along comes Alan Sharpe’s brand-new, beautifully wrought full-length play Good Hope Road, which I was fortunate to hear read aloud yesterday at DC Arts Center. Presented by the African-American Collective Theater (ACT) as an LGBTQ Theater Showcase during DC Black Pride Weekend, the play breathed such entertaining and moving fresh life into the boarding-house genre that I left wanting to know immediately when I could expect to see it onstage in a full production.
Good Hope Road is set in Anacostia on the front porch of a four-unit apartment building whose residents are six gay black men. Over the course of the play they are joined by five other gay black men. They range in age from 70 to 20, each and every one of them is a distinct and compelling character, each has a fascinating story to tell, and their lives intersect in surprisingly touching ways.
The words good hope in the title capture what is ultimately the play’s indomitable and aspirational spirit. But first the writer’s road takes us through places that seem funny on the surface but have sadness underneath.
The eldest character is Oscar (read by Michael Sainte-Andress), a retired schoolteacher confined to a wheelchair whose dependence on Depends has not dampened his astringent wit. (Sharpe gives him the play’s sharpest one-liners, much to the delight of yesterday’s full house.) Oscar employs a young man named Mario (Juan Raheem), who is possessed of perhaps the sweetest temperament and biggest heart of any home-healthcare aide ever.
Oscar’s longtime friend is a renter named Earl (Donald Burch III), who is also retired and an earnest foil to Oscar’s cantankerousness. Earl lives with his lover Jesse (Jason Crews), who owns a barber shop where, as we learn in Act Two, he has secretly been trysting with a cute hair cutter, Dion (Raquis Da-Juan Petree).
A third unit in the building is shared by three brothers, all of them gay. Danny (Tristan Phillip Hewitt) is a ne’er-do-well having no employable assets except his hot 20-year-old body, with which he wins a wet-underwear contest and hooks up extensively. Danny’s older brother Darryl (Monte J. Wolfe) seriously gets on his case trying to get him to grow up. Their well-meaning middle brother Dwight (Jeremy Keith Hunter) tries to mediate their strife. By the time a secret about Darryl’s sex life is revealed in Act Two, we realize Sharpe has created with these three disparate brothers an extraordinarily original portrait of a loving family.
Two men arrive to rent the fourth unit, and they also happen to be gay—engaged to be married in fact. Malik (Justin Fair) is so light-skinned Oscar thinks he’s white. (Malik’s mother is black and his father is Jewish.) Malik’s fiance is Armani (Reginald Richard), whose name sounds as upscale as his family background. The cliffhanger that ends Act One has to do with the fact that Armani’s rich uncle intends to buy the betrothed boys this very building as a wedding present—which comes as a huge shock to the other tenants.
Just as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun set a complex domestic drama in the context of a racist real estate market, Sharpe has set the interconnected stories of these boarders in the context of rapid changes happening right now in Anacostia. As such Good Hope Road is not only a wonderfully told story about wholly unstereotypical characters, not only a poignant portrait of eleven indelible lives—it is a barometer of a neighborhood in transition and a brilliant bellweather dramatic work.