Michael Jackson, that pervasive and often invasive American pop icon, although physically absent, is the most visible character in the original play by Geo Wyeth ’07, “The Entertained.”
Wyeth first began work on the show last semester in a playwriting class where monologues based on characters from his life eventually took on lives of their own, creating the basis for this staged reading of “The Entertained.”
The show depicts Marlene Harris (Camelle Scott ’07) and her son Billie (Chloe Bass ’06), as Marlene relates her story to the guidance counselors at Billie’s elementary school — the audience. Also involved in the story are Marlene’s brother, Malcom (Jonathan Pitts-Wiley ’08) and the omnipresent/never present Michael Jackson. Marlene’s story focuses on her experience as a racially ambiguous single mother, who, though African-American, is often mistaken for white.
Though poignant, “The Entertained” is often very desultory. Since the plot is wandering and conversational in tone as Marlene tells her story, there is often a lack of direction or strong dramatic arc.
Yet this does not detract from the strength of Wyeth’s message, which questions what it means to be black (or any race) and behaviors that are associated with race. Marlene constantly makes the assertion that she is “African-American,” yet makes a conscious effort not to act “black.” When her son swears at her, she punishes him and accuses him of “becomin’ blacker every day.”
As Wyeth deftly points out, there is a fine line between embracing one’s heritage and attempting to eschew everything negative that accompanies it.
Jackson’s music surfaces again and again, as do constant references to his life. A homeless street performer, The Kidd (Chijoke Okeke ’05), uses his music as a means of expressing himself, dancing, and, at points, pulling the audience onto the stage to dance with him. This intimacy is well suited to the usually cramped space of Nick Chapel, where one is very aware of the connection that exists between the actors and the audience.
As Marlene, Scott occasionally seems to lose track of where she is going dramatically, but this is understandable considering she was recruited as a last minute replacement. In the scenes with her brother and her son, however, Scott shines, giving the audience a definite sense of Marlene’s power and internal conflict.
Pitts-Wiley, too, exposes the strength of Malcom by revealing a layer of vulnerability just below his surface. When discussing with nephew Billie what a black male should act like, Pitts-Wiley tough exterior cracks to show the insecurity beneath.
It is Bass who is the weakest of the three, often playing at the idea of what an eight-year-old is instead of playing the character of Billie himself. There is lots of yelling and verbal stomping around and Billie’s story gets lost in the portrayal.
Wyeth, a performer himself, has a good sense of theater and it shows in “The Entertained.” Although still rough around the edges, the show is insightful, funny, and powerful. Michael Jackson, an almost Christ-like figure, is shown from every angle as Marlene comes to realizations about herself and her family.
Though “The Entertained” will not appeal to everyone, the show is refreshing in that it certainly doesn’t pander: The story is straightforward, yet does not judge. The play does not condemn, but leaves its audience to do so for themselves.