“Certain Aspects of Conflict in the Negro Family” is an awfully academic-sounding name for a play that is not actually academic at all. But the title is accurate.
Conflicts do abound in this new family drama, which was written by TyLie Shider and directed by Othell J. Miller, and is being presented by Premiere Stages in a tent outside the Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union.
Clif (Eddie Gouveia Blackman) wants to get back together with his ex-wife, Peach (Diane L. Parker). He even has a fantasy about returning with her to their original hometown, Statesboro, Ga., where they lived before moving to Plainfield. “We could live good on Jersey money down South,” he tells her.
But she’s still mad at him for cheating on her, and isn’t interested. She tells him so, repeatedly and emphatically.
Clif’s son Junior (Kena Anae), who lives with Peach, is an aspiring musician and wants to focus on that. But Clif, who takes pride in how hard he has worked his whole life, wants Junior to get a “real” job. Meanwhile, Junior resents Clif (spelled that way because it’s short for Clifton, by the way) for breaking up the family, and for trying to high-handedly give him advice when he’s messed up his own life so badly.
Meanwhile, Junior wants his relationship with his girlfriend and musical partner, Ruth (Nicole Prothro), to get more physical. But Ruth, a pastor’s daughter and true believer herself, wants to wait until marriage.
The play is set almost entirely on Peach’s porch, where Clif frequently stops by. Peach doesn’t invite him in; he sits on the porch and she sits in her kitchen and banters with him through an open window. Junior and Ruth are usually in the basement, working on their music, but occasionally come up and interact with Clif and Peach.
This play is Premiere Stages and Liberty Hall’s 2021/22 Liberty Live Commission; the program develops new plays that touch on some aspect of New Jersey history. “Certain Aspects” meets the criterion by having the Plainfield race riots of the summer of 1967 figure in its dialogue and action (it was “the summer that changed Plainfield forever,” we are told in the play’s epilogue). But the play is not really “about” the riots. It’s about this family, whose members seem to be stuck in various dead ends in terms of their relationships with each other.
Which they talk about, over and over, until something — I won’t say what — finally happens that shakes things up and causes some changes.
The main problem I found with the play is that I didn’t care if Clif and Peach resolved their differences and became a couple again. There is virtually no romance in this love story. Clif — who, even though he brags about how hard he works, seems to have endless time to hang out on his ex-wife’s porch — persists when almost anyone else would sensibly give up. Peach seems to have no warmth or affection for him left over from their marriage and is, in fact, still seething with anger.
In a typical exchange, Clif tells Peach, “You sure look good,” and she snaps back, “I wish I could say the same about you.”
I didn’t have much interest, either, in the Junior storyline. He has quit his record store job — childishly, because the owner refused to sell his record there — and is now holing up in the basement, with fantasies of becoming a big star, making music that “sounds like the streets.” But when we finally hear the supposed masterpiece he and Ruth have come up with, it’s a bland ballad with clichés like “love is the answer” and “look out, people, here we come, stronger together”; it just doesn’t match his larger-than-life ambitions.
And as far as the riots … yes, these four characters are, eventually, directly affected by them. But for the most part, we know about the chaos in Plainfield — as well as in Newark, which, we’re reminded, is just 20 miles away — mainly by listening to them talk about what they’ve heard, or read in the newspaper.
This is perfectly realistic: Surely, plenty of New Jerseyans experienced the riots that way. But it’s not the most dramatic way to explore history.
A footnote: Junior has dreams of writing a song that would be used “on my brother’s next album,” and the brother is described as the lead guitarist for a successful band (though not a frontman). TyLie Shider is the nephew of the late Garry Shider, the Plainfield native who played guitar for George Clinton’s groundbreaking, hit-making Parliament and Funkadelic bands. So “Certain Aspects” has a connection to New Jersey music history, even though Junior’s brother, and his band, are never named.
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