Saturday, May 15, 2004

'Orphans' depicts a life on the fringe

Theater review

Sean Christopher Lewis stands on the makeshift Sycamore Place stage, his costume/uniform baggy chic from the Hilfiger Jeans catalogue.

He embarks on his Hip-Hop epic I Will Make You Orphans, a kind of Every Young Man's Life that keeps your attention thanks to Lewis' keen sense of observation, his talent for rhyming and his insights into his generation and what happens when too many kids grow up with doors slamming in their faces.

Fringe events calendar
Lewis plays Sean Boogie, and he tells us who he is up front:

"Yo, check this out./

Imagine that you're young/



And all you wannabe/

Is an M.C./

And you'll be me."

Which makes him a freak as far his classmates are concerned. His father wishes he'd join a frat instead of practicing his rap. His black teacher ("with the voice of a Baptist preacher") would like to straighten him out on a few facts. And his neglected girlfriend drops him a note to say she's pregnant.

Lewis plays all these supporting characters and more, and he'd have not just a watchable show but an alternative theater hit, I suspect, if he could inhabit these characters rather than sketch them in.

Boogie's blue-collar dad is finely etched and the narrator is a clear presence, but there's not enough differentiation among the rest to take you to the edge of your seat.

Lewis gives his audience plenty to chew on, however; more than enough to make Orphans a satisfying entry in Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

Orphans has potentially incendiary notions. How is it, Boogie marvels, that a generation of kids can memorize a sub-culture's slanguage and its moves and its uniform but not a multiplication table? And by the way, so you don't understand a word they're saying? "Jesus didn't speak English, either."

But, at Orphans' soul, working-class slacker Boogie is mystified that nobody gets it. Elvis was then, Eminem is now.

"I'm the new-century white man," he raps, "which means I declare schoolyards war zones, like Littleton."

What, argues Boogie, if black weren't a color "but an experience, a way of life?"

"I don't feel equal," he charges. What if it were the state of "people looking down on you, of being less than someone else?" That's him. "There were slave days then and now," he says.

Lewis has to sharpen his characterizations to keep the audience with him, but the Cincinnati Fringe is Orphans' first full production.

If Boogie is filled with bewildered, undirected anger, Lewis has hope in his heart. His final statement is a challenge to his audience. "What we need is here right now," he says. "We need to pick up the mike ourselves" and be heard.

Jackie Demaline

"I Will Make You Orphans" repeats at 7 p.m. tonight, 9 p.m. Wednesday and 10 p.m. Friday at Sycamore Place at St. Xavier Park.

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