Chocolate Covered Ants, a new play by Steven A. Butler, Jr., and now on stage at the Anacostia Playhouse, is that rarity of theatrical experience in that it explores the psyche of the African American male.
Equal parts hysterically funny and dramatically riveting, Chocolate Covered Ants will get you sitting down afterwards to talk about its array of characters, the implications of its plot and dramatic conclusion, and its issues, for African Americans and for the nation.
Even though the play tries to accomplish too much for any one play to accomplish, the beautiful, lyrical voice of playwright Mr. Butler and the power of its acting ensemble will keep you focused throughout.
Produced by Restoration Stage, Inc., Chocolate Covered Ants starts with a nod toward Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Six African American men stand onstage and deliver poetic monologues about what it means to be Black and male and living in America.
Then we meet Dr. Adrienne Hilton Taylor, played by Suli Myrie. Ms. Myrie gives a strong performance as the university psychology professor determined to make a name for herself.
Dr. Taylor has organized an academic study seeking to reveal the effects that Black men with absent fathers have on the psychological health of African American females. She is all ambition and will do anything to prove her hypothesis and make a name for herself.
Her young assistant, Michelle, played with a wonderful feistiness by Wilma Lynn Horton, provides a great deal of comic relief. Ms. Horton delivers quick witted retorts to any opinion she finds objectionable to her understanding of the world.
Ms. Taylor’s father, Dr. Hilton, is played by Tillmon Figgs. Mr. Figgs lends the character a graceful dignity as he does whatever he can to mend his relationship with his daughter, a relationship he severely damaged long ago.
At the emotional heart of the story are, however, four men at the prime of their lives. The power of Mr. Butler’s writing is that he creates these strong, yet flawed characters whom we come to love nevertheless.
First, we meet “Flex”, the successful rapper, played with great stage presence by David Lamont Wilson. Under investigation for statutory rape, Wilson’s Flex has all the bravado one might expect from a celebrity who is used to adoration; nevertheless, we discover a surprising pain.
Then there is Tyrone Jackson, played with variety and verve by Marquis Fair. Jackson enters the stage in a prison jumpsuit: he has violated his parole, caught once again in possession of drugs.
One of the evening’s most interesting characters is Jayson, played with poise by Christopher Ezell. Born to a white hippie mother in an all white, wealthy Connecticut suburb, Jayson has no racial identification at all, other than to see his black skin as a detriment. He has become a police officer.
Then we meet A.J., played with intelligence by Clermon Acklin. A.J. is headed to law school. He would call himself “gay” but for the fact that “gay” implies “happy” and he is decidedly unhappy. Thus, he calls himself “a homosexual.”
Each of these men had no discernable father in their young lives. Each had a mother who was unable to recognize him as a vulnerable child and, thus, did not provide him with the emotional support he needed. And, as A.J. explains, every African American, male or female, has a history strangled by slavery and lost in the historical records.
Kandace Foreman plays the Ant Queen, a multidimensional character who portrays the various mothers and other family members who affected these men’s lives at an early age.
Finally, we meet Alan, played by Charles W. Harris, Jr. Alan plays the drum; Alan drives a Greyhound; Alan has fathered lots of children. Mr. Harris gives a fabulous performance of the deeply wounded son of an abusive share-cropper father.
Set Designer Harlan Penn created an impressive set for the production. With clarifying lighting by Johnathan Alexander and colorful costumes by Courtney Baker-Oliver, the stage’s thrust arrangement with a deep upstage gives the production the weight and grandeur of all established institutions.
Director Courtney Baker-Oliver uses the Playhouse’s space effectively and keeps the scenes moving and engaging.
Steven A. Butler’s Chocolate Covered Ants and its dynamic, revealing characters are most definitely a play worth seeing, even if it keeps you up past your bedtime.
Running Time: 3 hours, plus an intermission.
Chocolate Covered Ants plays through February 7, 2016 at Restoration Stage performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, SE, in Washington, DC. For info and tickets call (202) 714-0646, or purchase them online.