James Ijames’s MOON MAN WALK, the first offering by new playwrights’ collective Orbiter 3, is a new work about a librarian named Monarch (Lindsay Smiling) who, upon hearing about the sudden death of his mother (Jaylene Clark Owens)—his only friend—flies back to Philadelphia to handle the funeral. There, he finds out that the father (Carlo Campbell) he’d never met is in prison, not on the moon as his mother told him when he was a child.
Ijames presents a fully peopled world of funeral directors and florists and high school students and library patrons. The four-person cast is all black, which is unusual in Philadelphia, where our theater scene still mainly presents white performers.
MOON MAN WALK operates in three worlds: present day, when Monarch is going back to Philadelphia for the funeral; flashbacks to his youth and his parents in the 1970s; and fantasies where Monarch imagines his absent father stranded on the moon. It is written in a variety of dialects with slang and vocabulary specific to time and place. It was jarring, to me, to hear a flight attendant speak in something other than the newscaster voice, the standard Midwest accent. MOON MAN WALK creates, on the one hand, a fantasy: a black world that reminds us of how white our own world is—and, of course, how white our theater is.
It is also a play about a very real story: a young man who lost his father to the drug war and mass incarceration, a story which is largely a black American story. MOON MAN WALK doesn’t call these things out, it lets them sit and simmer and be what they are.
Unfortunately, cliche, uninteresting writing dogs us throughout. Much of it is predictable or uncreative (children say “ZOOOOOOMMMMM” while they play and songs are mostly “doodle oodle ooh doo / doodle oodle ooh doo”), or peppered with irritating pseudo-wisdoms (“You know why I love flowers? [. . .] When you cut a rose it dies a little. But it lives [. . .] Beauty won’t just crumble and die”).
But the most untenable aspect of the play is the romantic side-plot. A play about a failed writer who lives alone, a thousand miles from his only family, trying to connect with a failed father (failed businessman, failed citizen) must have seemed too grim and thoughtful a prospect for Ijames. In the opening scene, dour, shy, “momma’s boy” Monarch is confronted by Petrushka (Aimé Donna Kelly), a patron looking for a noir book, a manic pixie dream girl who chases him around the library teasing and flirting. Of course, they meet again on the plane, where she is reading the in-flight magazine with ironic delight and teasing the flight attendant.
Aimé Donna Kelly’s presence, energy, and invention does service to the role, providing variation and surprise, exploding with joy and quirks. But this character as written is painfully kitschy and unreal, as glitzy and thoughtless as a bag of glitter. She has no stated purpose in Philadelphia, no back story. She follows Monarch around like a guardian angel, shining light on every difficulty, trying to romance him (“it’s just . . . my mom’s house,” he protests), and dropping pseudo-epiphanies (“Hear that? [. . .] That sound? [. . .] Quiet.”). She’s Zach Braffian fluff, a woman composed out of dust simply to help a man on his journey.
Petrushka drifts a story already straining under the weight of cliche and trope so hard into the goopy Hollywood romance, the narrative of the troubled man learning to lighten up and love—the eternal lie—that it isn’t until the penultimate scene that I realize what the play was always about.
Near the end of the one-act piece (spoiler alert!), Monarch finally confronts the father he’s been searching for the entire play—and, really, his whole life. The two men stand and gaze at one another across four feet of space. It’s empty theatrical space—Thom Weaver’s nearly flat, gray marbled thrust stage presents a no-man’s-land, a blackbox that isn’t black, a moonwalk—so we fill in what stands between: the plate glass, the seats, the phone which they would be holding in order to transmit their voices across the tiny prison meeting area. In that gaze, we see how they view one another and how their faces communicate, or don’t, what’s going on inside.
At least, that’s what I think as I watch the scene. We’ve gotten used to Monarch’s deadpan, but the father, who once was swaggering and sweet, if obviously troubled, is stiff, with a screwed up lips and clipped speech. These two men, both so expressive in their youth, have changed dramatically. In a way, they’ve both found what they were looking for—one another—but what’s interesting is what life has done to them. [Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street] June 27-July 19, 2015, orbiter3.org.