Melodrama Cruises Race Line

Courtesy of Manuel Rotenberg

It’s a gutsy move to direct a play centered on some of the same racial issues that rocked the campus last quarter — but freshman Master of Fine Arts student Larissa Lury just went there. Based on a script by junior playwright Ronald McCants, “Oyster” follows a black man’s struggle to reconnect with the son he abandoned long ago. Like so, Lury examines the black experience in America through the lens of one father-son relationship.

Commenting on everything from poverty and personal loss to the military, child abandonment, academic elitism, racism, affirmative action and fraternity hazing, it would seem that McCants bit off more than he could chew. But with two of the most talented actors in the MFA program to carry the script, nearly every piece of its ambitious puzzle falls effortlessly into place.

At the outset, we meet Anthony (Gabriel Lawrence) — a 15-year-old football hopeful whose only experience is breaking his arm before the first game — and Tony (Bowman Wright), Anthony’s deadbeat dad, who desperately wants to re-enter his son’s life. What follows is two-and-a-half hours of generational bickering; lucky for us, the colossal argument is written in thought-provoking sociological prowess, with a healthy side of tongue-in-cheek humor to make the serious shit go down.

With a minimalist set that your three-year-old sister could assemble — stacked cardboard boxes and stretched white garbage bags — Lawrence and Wright must do all the heavy lifting; and you better believe they deliver. Whether getting low to the Jackson 5’s “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” heart-to-hearting about drug abuse or combating what Anthony calls “the black predisposition to failure,” both actors give it all they’ve got.

The ambitious “Oyster” is not without its rough patches. One disjointed scene watches a game of beer pong between Anthony and his Dartmouth frat brother Jeff (Mark Christine) turn into a nauseating show of bigotry, as Anthony is forced to perform the Sambo song. It’s certainly relevant, but feels pasted into an otherwise cohesive piece — an obvious cater to the college crowd. Even worse are a handful of pop-culture references — “awkward turtle,” Lindsay Lohan, etc. — that stick out like cheap buzzwords in an otherwise intimate father-son conversation.

Hats go off to Christine for playing three characters, but he never leaves the shadow of his multifaceted co-stars. As the token white guy with a limited world view, he serves as a foil to the drama. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s his job to rake in the cheap laughs — with every hillbilly scratch of his potbelly. Overall, though, “Oyster” is an introspective escape from ignorance that will no doubt serve as a prompt for intelligent discussion long after the shock value off UCSD’s February showdown has dissipated.

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