Radha Blank’s ‘SEED’ Takes Root in Harlem

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    The off-Broadway production SEED explores the present day situation of children growing up abandoned and confused, while touching on class struggles. The play begs the question, how far would a person go to make sure a child is safe?  Written by Radha Blank and directed by Niegel Smith, the play is one of two works the National Endowment of the Arts awarded a $90,000 grant to in November 2010.

    The play centers around Anne Colleen Simpson, (played by Bridgit Antoinette Evans) a ‘burnt-out social worker’ leaving at the pinnacle of her 15-year career to write a novel of her great triumphs and knowledge of the field. Upon leaving her job, she encounters a young boy named Che-Che (played by Khadim Diop) who is more than just what meets the eye. This chance encounter turns both their lives and those of the people involved up-side down.

    The stage provides the audience  with sounds and sights of the Harlem neighborhood thriving projected onto a large screen. Cleverly crafted to look like real life scenes, the play adds elements of spoken-word, street vernacular, and realistic dialogue that leaves the audience filled with a comical and almost jarring taste of modern-day real life situations that for some may be close to home.

    Image courtesy of Columbia University School of the Arts

    As the story progresses we learn more about Anne, who actress Evans describes as a person “who’s greatest gift is over-identifying with the children she serves. This also means she’s not able to let go when her job demands it and she’s asked to confront some those relationships.” Anne captivates the audience within the first fifteen minutes, as she delivers a seminar mixed with spoken-word and prose, detailing the accounts of children who were products of homes that couldn’t care for them. Bridgit’s portrayal of the character is endearing, as we see the wounds and failures of this woman break down her already fragile strength.

    Of these failures, we encounter probably Anne’s biggest failure personified in Rashawn. An inmate for murder, Rashawn was quite possibly the biggest blemish of Anne’s career; a blemish that we learn she continually tries to redeem in multiple ways. The play takes a dark and harrowing turn when Pernell Walker (below) takes the stage as the young woman she herself describes as “left to raise herself, with no guidance, no adult and left to her own devises.” When Walker takes the stage it’s hard not to ask how she was able to play such a broken and complex character:

    “I grew up with a lot of Rashawns in the South Bronx. She is the personification of what was left in the the 80’s crack epidemic, sexual abuse and drug addiction. She is an amalgam of everything that was happening and a survivor of the system, even though she’s been aged out.”

    Image courtesy of Times Square Gossip

    Khadim Diop plays Che-Che (whose real name is Cherokee) and is received as an intelligent 12 year-old caught between worlds within worlds. Already dealing with societal pressures of growing up in “the hood,” he constantly struggles with being what his mother wants him to be and who Anne knows him to be. There is no real compromise in the matter and this alone adds a great deal of friction in this already gripping drama.

    The play is not without some comic relief to sweeten the dramatic scenes. LaTonya, Che-Che’s mother, provides a street smart sass that garnered plenty of laughs from the audience. LaTonya raises Che-Che in a Harlem project housing, all the while working the register at a Duane Reade and attending GED classes.LaTonya believes that she’s protecting Che-Che the best way she can, despite obvious instances of verbal and light physical abuse.  Jocelyn Biop, the actress who plays LaTonya, describes her as “a strong-willed, opinionated, sassy and protective. But at the heart of it all, she’s hurt.”

    This hurt stems from LaTonya’s former lover and Che-Che’s father Twan (as played by Jamie Lincoln Smith) who we initially think is a dead-beat dad though he’s anything but. Twan, (who is allegedly based on the playwright’s brother, takes the stage with a loving embrace of his son. The two are apparently close, though we are asked the question if this is enough to ensure that Che-Che will grow up to be the bright, well-adjusted upstanding man he can be.

    “Twan is a struggling to prove that he’s not a dead beat. He’s a strong guy, and a construction worker who thinks that he’s doing the best to provide for his son…until he meets the social worker.” The audience learns of the beginnings of Twan and LaTonya’s relationship and how Twan’s late education ultimately broke them apart. Now, education has returned as the underlying issue with regards to raising their child.

    For the cast, this play is truly a labor of love, with all members coming to the project in almost a predestined way. For Diop, getting the part of Che-Che came  by through his mother’s connection with Blank- “Radha went to college with my mother and saw me grow up and knew that I really liked acting.” For Walker, it had been that Blank had seen some of her work, sought her out and the pair “hit it off.” Smith learned of the part through a friend who was also a playwright and friends with Blank. Bioh had seen the workshop and became enamored. She tried out for the part and got it with ease and as for Evans this play came to her literally a day after she decided to get back into acting and after only a day of preparation, she earned the part of Anne and dazzled the audience in an emotional performance.

    SEED opens the audience’s attention to the little real-life situations that happen right under our noses everyday and forces us to open our eyes to the consequences of our actions on the lives of the generation after us. As Che-Che struggles to find his place in the world with his educational talents, we see the adults in his life try to do right by him at all costs, though we are left wondering if the adults in charge understand what’s right for him. With a phenomenal troupe of actors, stylized dialogue, minimalistic setting and deep rooted message, SEED thoroughly shines through the shadows of other Off-Broadway productions.

    SEED ran in its last show at the National Black Theater in Harlem on October 9th.

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