A well-acted play where a major character declares that his chief goal is . . . tenure is a good bet for Ann Arbor theater lovers. Here’s hoping many locals will set their GPS systems east to catch the premiere of Forgiving John Lennon at the long-established but too-little-known Detroit Repertory Theater. You could say that the Rep is in the middle of nowhere or a couple of easy turns off the Lodge. Both would be true.
The Rep specializes in little known works with predominantly, but not exclusively, African American actors. In Forgiving, diversity and tolerance are themselves themes that advance the plot, its exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek quality notwithstanding. The actions unravels in the living room of husband-and-wife academics Joseph (Benjamin J. Williams), an African American, and white, British Katie (Leah Smith). He’s the one who yearns for tenure; she already has it and is absorbed in helping her husband, who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease, find his own path to the elusive gold.
It turns out that their visitor for the evening, a Somali Muslim woman poet, wearing the traditional head scarf and long robe, has something to do with Joseph’s hopes. Playwright William Missouri Downs, who has several works under his belt, is clearly having fun with Joseph and Katie, holier than-thou-liberals who treat Asma (Yolanda Jack) with barely disguised condescension. Lots of hoots when Asma asks Katie if she “obeys” her husband. Asma projects incredulity through a look of bemused expectation; her saucer-like eyes project the innocence of a kid watching a magician.
Though Joseph and Katie are slow to catch on, we, the audience, soon realize that Asma is subtly taunting the couple. But is she just enjoying an inner joke or is the play building to something we can’t yet anticipate? Yes, and yes. The end is a shocker, though, like all well-written dramas, enough clues have been dropped along the way that we don’t feel cheated.
Each actor is in command, even the pizza delivery guy (Samer Ajliuni) who appears at the end for just a few–but very important–minutes. With her earnestness layered over her like her traditional costume, Yolanda Jack comes close to stealing the show, but this is true ensemble acting; each character has to play to the next. Downs (who teaches at the University of Wyoming) is adept enough to make his basically decent characters more than mouthpieces for the cliches, political correctness, and from-the-headline horrors of our times.
Forgiving John Lennon runs till May 22 (www.detroitreptheatre.com or call 313-868-1347). Plan to come hungry for sweets: large chocolate-chip cookies are a bargain at fifty cents. For those who prefer harder stuff, there’s a bar.