“Belonging” Marks A New Start
by | Oct 17, 2019
It’s two men in a bar. The bartender, seeing the heat rising between them and realizing they have nowhere else to go that’s safe, leaves the keys with one of them and tells him he can lock up. So the two men begin a verbal dance. One is bold and direct. The other cautious, even afraid. But they both want the same thing. Finally one of them asks the question: “May I kiss you?”The other hesitates. Someone in the audience can’t handle it anymore and calls out: “Do it!”
It’s just one of many tender, passionate moments in Ricardo Pérez González‘s On The Grounds of Belonging, a breathless, often beautiful Romeo and Juliet-like love story told in a fascinating context: the gay bars of 1950s Houston, Texas, which are as racially segregated as the rest of society. Right from the start, González makes a bold point: that queer society in the 1950s was not exempt from the racism that structured American life, and that even people who were themselves members of oppressed minorities, often fearful of their lives, could harbor the same racist thoughts as their oppressors. These racial tensions make González’s tale of two Romeos feel all too real. We know from the start that they’re doomed, and that’s what renders it so poignant. The only question is how doomed.
The play’s world-premiere runs at Long Wharf Theatre lasts through Nov. 3.
Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith) and Thomas Aston (Jeremiah Clapp) only meet in the first place because of a police raid on the Red Room, a white gay bar, which is across the street from the Gold Room, a black one. Aston, fleeing the Red Room raid, bursts into the Gold Room in quite convincing full drag. He’s there as a refugee, even as his very presence there is a time bomb for the black clientele — Montgomery, his flagrantly oversexed on-again-off-again lover Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), lounge singer Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee) and barkeep Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott). Yet sparks fly immediately between the very outgoing Aston and the guarded, bookish Montgomery — sparks that Aston follows up on the very next day. The two begin a romance made all the more charged by the fact that it must be hidden from view even within the queer community they inhabit. They have an understanding ally in Williams. But Stanfield, they know, won’t stand for it if he finds out. An even greater threat looms from Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), who runs the Red Room across the street and finds an interracial romance to be intolerable on its face. As their romance heats up, the imminent danger from society all around them feels like it’s closing in. Especially for Montgomery, it’s a matter of life and death. They talk about fleeing together. Will they be able to get out in time?
González pairs the dramatic, sometimes tragic machinations of his plot with a line-by-line sense of life, humor, and humanity that makes Belonging often very funny from minute to minute even as the tension rachets up from scene to scene, and the uniformly excellent cast, under the nimble direction of David Mendizábal, is more than up to the task of making it all work. Blake Anthony Morris makes Stanfield first knowingly and comically horny, but is soon able to reveal how that desire can curdle into jealousy. Tanya Starr is perhaps in the most danger of being more of a type than a full-fledged character, but Lee is able to use every line to show Starr’s depth, grit, vulnerabilities, and wisdom. As Fitzpatrick, Bockhorn embodies the screaming dissonance of being gay and racist, both oppressed and oppressor, that makes him dangerous to everyone around him. And Silcott is often moving as the older Williams, who sees in the young romance budding before his eyes the distant hope for a better future.The play, however, depends on the chemistry between Montgomery and Aston, and Smith and Clapp are marvelous. On their first date, Clapp plays Aston as a man with absolutely nothing to lose; Smith’s Montgomery, meanwhile, stands to lose everything he has. It’s a thrilling scene, which Clapp and Smith played so expertly that on the night this reviewer saw it, the audience was egging the characters on as if they weren’t really following a script. As their love grows stronger, they each begin to take on some of the characteristics of the other. Aston’s growing awareness of the divide between them makes him more protective of Montgomery, and more cautious, while Montgomery grows ever more resentful of the multiple ways that the society around him threatens his life simply because he wants to be with Aston. By the end, they are both all too aware of the risks they’re taking, but in a way that feels utterly real, they just love each other too much to let go.
It all comes to a head in the final third, though not necessarily in the way that you might expect. There are more revelations of character and history. Some people find a strength they thought long dormant. Others tap into a desperation they thought they would never need again. And in a wry turn near the end, it falls to the sole woman to clean up the mess that all the men around her make. For all the conversations about racism that fuel the play’s drama, sexism — alive and well in González’s depiction of 1950s Houston — hardly comes up.But On the Grounds of Belonging isn’t an “issues” play; it is moving, alive, hopeful, and human, and speaks to our time loud and clear. It also marks the first play of the first season with artistic director Jacob G. Padrón firmly at the helm of Long Wharf Theatre. As a marker of what’s to come — from the choice of play, to the way it’s performed, to the involvement a vibrant and dedicated audience — it feels like a sign of a venerable theater striking out in a bold direction under younger, clear-eyed leadership. It feels rejuvenating, like a fresh start.