Review: ‘Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son’ by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez at Contemporary American Theater Festival

The Antonio in question is Antonio Edwards Suarez, the writer (with Dael Orlandersmith) and actor in this one-man autobiographical piece, part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It’s brilliantly, movingly done, with a virtuosic performance by Suarez.

Antonio Edwards Suarez in 'Antonio's Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son' at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Antonio Edwards Suarez in ‘Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Antonio, the character, sees, compassionately, his own vulnerabilities and wounds and those of the others in his world. He portrays himself at various ages, his father, mother, and friends. It’s seamless, with instant transitions of voice, movement, pace, and tone. The technique is impressive, but it’s his ability to convey to the audience the emotions of his character– fear that consumes him at times, wonder at discovering dance through a PBS show featuring Baryshnikov, amazement at a Brooklyn kid like him studying fine arts at Harvard and dance in Russia, shame at beating a defenseless older man – that gives the show its power.

Antonio’s mixed ethnic heritage leads both to some confusion in his mind about identity and to an amusing accommodation – hanging out with Black kids and Hispanic kids on alternate days. He keeps questioning:  as Orlandersmith comments in her program note, they wanted to “look at what masculinity means, what does it mean in terms of coming from Brooklyn, what does it mean in terms of men of color, what does it mean if a man is small?”

Above all, what does it mean to be a father? The show is bookended with Antonio’s frustration bubbling over into his hitting his five-year-old son and enfolding him in a final moment of reconciliation. It is the need to understand himself with respect to his boy that leads him on his quest for understanding.

Suarez, a trained dancer as well as an actor and playwright, moves expressively throughout, in a variety of styles, always firmly in the various characters he inhabits. His hands are marvelously expressive, whether describing his father’s delicate woodcarving or balled up in anger. The script’ s language is musical, and Suarez’s delivery gets the poetry.

While there is only one actor on stage, he is far from alone. Jared Mezzocchi’s projections create a sense of place, whether the brick row houses of Brooklyn or Antonio’s studio. They create a sense of character, notably the curling cigarette smoke and dim TV light surrounding Antonio’s deeply depressed, often antagonistic, mother. They mirror emotions, most vividly when the screens go to a blurry incoherence when Antonio is overwhelmed with rage.

Antonio Edwards Suarez in 'Antonio's Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son' at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Antonio Edwards Suarez in ‘Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.

John Ambrosone’s lighting design, often featuring 2-3 tight specials into which Suarez moves as he represents different characters or moods, enhances the production, as does Andre Pluess’ sound design, beginning with the jazz pre-show music and extending through the music Antonio listens to, dances to, and is inspired by through his life.

There’s a good deal said and written these days about “toxic masculinity,” and indeed some of it is on display in Antonio’s life. But what is often less noted is the ability of men to reach out and embrace others, as does Antonio’s “citizen of the world” friend Curtis, or the exquisite tenderness of which Antonio, in his best moments, is capable. Our cultures often enough try to beat that tenderness out of young men, but Antonio’s redemptive journey is a sign of the hope that such qualities can survive and even thrive.

Running Time: One hour and 5 minutes, with no intermission.

Antonio’s Song/ I was dreaming of a son plays through July 28 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the venue being the Studio 112 on the Shepherd University campus, 92 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV. For tickets, call 800-999-2283 (CATF), extension 1, or go online.

Scenic Design, Luciana Stecconi; Costume Design, Peggy McKowen