REVIEW: Loy A. Webb’s explosive and exquisite “The Light” at MCC Theater
The specificity of that day—recent history—is illustrative of Ms. Webb’s extraordinarily acute sense of detail in penning this urgent and painful story of revelation, redress, and—though possessing an ambiguous ending—hopeful reconciliation.
On Friday, October 5, 2018, the United States Senate voted on a motion to invoke cloture, advance to a limited debate, and proceed toward a final vote on the nomination of then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh to serve a lifetime appointment an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
That vote capped a month of roiling controversy and explosive public discourse over an accusation of sexual assault made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Kavanaugh, bringing the #MeToo movement into its most high profile and high stakes moment yet, and producing the cruel irony of a man accused of sexual assault assuming the mantle of victimhood to gain a position of power in which he will be uniquely able to weigh in on the rights and liberties of all women. Echoes of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas—repeated history—are unavoidable.
Against that background, “The Light” opens on a gorgeously well-appointed, West Elm-chic Hyde Park condo in Chicago, Illinois (set by Kimie Nishikawa), as Rashad (McKinley Belcher, III), a firefighter who once dreamed of playing for the NFL, prepares for his girlfriend to come home. October 5, 2018 also happens to be their second anniversary.
When Genesis (Mandi Masden) arrives, the weight of her Friday exhaustion is palpable. She’s the principal of an all-black charter school who has spent her day dealing with the aftermath of a white teacher sharing “I stand with Brett” on social media. Rashad suggests that the teacher be fired, but policy dictates that she can’t be punished for her private views, putting Genesis in the position of enforcing the rules. This early, intriguingly topical flap foreshadows fireworks to come, but first the two must exchange anniversary gifts.
“The Light” is a love story, just not the one you might expect it to be based on its first 30 minutes. It is during this time, largely spent by Rashad and Genesis telling each other stories of their meeting and courtship, that Ms. Webb’s dialogue rings false and unnaturally expository. After all, we don’t typically sit around regaling each other, in great detail, with the stories of recent experiences we have shared together. Their exchange feels performative, until it isn’t.
Rashad’s charming and romantic proposal of marriage grounds the tone of festivity, only for it to be upended when Genesis refuses his gesture of celebratory tickets to a benefit concert in Union Park that very evening, headlined by the (fictional) rapper Kashif.
Exposing a long-simmering conflict between them, Genesis repeats her objection to Kashif’s misogyny before revealing that a friend of hers in college was raped by Kashif—a charge Rashad, himself the past victim of a false allegation of domestic battery and the father of his abandoned daughter, questions given the lack of a report, charge, or conviction. To Rashad, Kashif is an exemplar who has given back to his community, so an attack on him feels personal.
The two spar with Rashad imploring Genesis to understand the fragility of his existence as a black man to whom the benefit of the doubt is never afforded. And Genesis, in turn, pleading with Rashad to understand the unique plight of black women who are in a constant fight to be seen and valued under the dual weight of being both black and female.
Then Genesis finally shares [spoiler alert] that it was her, and not her friend, whom Kashif raped. Whether their relationship, much less their engagement, will survive, I’ll leave unanswered here, but their argument only intensifies, becoming more raw and heartbreaking.
Ms. Webb—a lawyer, playwright, and journalist—was inspired to write the play in 2016 following the resurface of rape charges from the 1990s against filmmaker Nate Parker whom she had much admired. Tossing a fictional analogue of this controversy in to the simmering vehicle of a tautly and evocatively sketched, 70 minute, two person play that starts like a rom-com before embarking on tragic territory, she forces the audience to reckon with its own baked-in biases and assumptions based on race and gender, and to do and be better.
Genesis explicitly rejects the imposition of having to lead Rashad through a “teachable moment”, insisting that her own humanity and dignity as a woman trump her need to educate men to see and value members of opposite sex as equal human beings. Nevertheless, Ms. Webb’s play is itself a “teachable moment” under the gripping direction of Logan Vaughn.
#MeToo was founded by a black woman; “The Light” reclaims it for black women. As only the second play by a black female playwright that MCC has produced in its 33 year history, but notably the first production at its glistening new facility, the theatre company is living its mission to support new works by new voices that “provoke conversations” and engage “audience reflection upon and discussion of the most essential . . . questions of our time.”
The equality of women is the great unfinished business of the 21st century, and the ways in which women of color, in particular, are marginalized in America demand a national conversation. Ms. Webb’s intense and incendiary play is a step in the right direction, and a powerful plea for us to push to realize more “light in all this darkness.”
Bottom Line: “The Light” is an urgent and painful story of revelation, redress, and hopeful reconciliation cued at the intersection of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Tautly and evocatively sketched by playwright Loy A. Webb, this exquisite two-hander starts like a rom-com before embarking on tragic territory, forcing the audience to reckon with its own baked-in biases and assumptions based on race and gender, and to do and be better.
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater
at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52 Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 70 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: February 10, 2019
Final Performance: March 17, 2019