By Ishmael Reed; Directed by Carla Blank
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.26.23
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
by David Kaufman on 3.16.23
L-R: Brian Simmons and Imran Javaid in The Conductor. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
BOTTOM LINE: Inspired by the recent ousting of three San Francisco school board members, the satirical The Conductor takes on a lot, but doesn't succeed.
In early 2022, three members of the San Francisco Board of Education were removed in a recall election. For some, this was an important corrective to “ultra-progressive, Woke” politics that had run amok during the pandemic. For playwright Ishmael Reed, this was just one more example of the power of billionaires. His new play The Conductor is a satirical take on these recent events.
The main characters are Warren Chipp (Brian Simmons), a politically engaged Black man and former columnist for The San Francisco Chrysalis, and Shashi Parmar (Imran Javaid), described in the program as a “Hi-Tech engineer and president of Citizens for Excellence in Education.” Mirroring the real events upon which this play was based, Shashi was instrumental in spear-heading the recall that Warren was so adamantly against. But (and here's where the play shifts into high satire mode) now that Shashi is being aggressively hunted by the right, he and Warren find themselves aligned.
As the play goes on, two women join the action in Warren's apartment: Melody Wells (Kenya Wilson), another Black columnist for a different paper (as Melody says, “Being Black might be a boon”), and Kala Parmar (Monisha Shiva), a college lecturer and Shashi's sister. In various combinations, these four characters (all non-white) discuss recent events, racial politics, and how Shashi might be able to escape those who are after him.
Much of the plot is narrated by TV reporter Hedda “Buttermilk” Duckbill (Laura Robards), who hosts a show on WLN, or the “White Lightning Network” (think Fox News). We see Hedda’s show whenever Warren, alone, sprawls out on his sofa and watches television. Robards gives Hedda a certain apt snootiness, and the character is one of Reed’s most imaginative conceits. From the jump, she readily conveys the bulk of what we come to know about Warren and Shashi, both of whom appear to be stand-ins for the playwright.
The one remaining character is Gabriel Noitallde (Emil Guillermo), a talking head and guest on Hedda’s show who dons a characteristic bowtie and glasses. Gabriel’s awkward, onomatopoetic surname was crafted to sound like “know-it-all-day.” Guillermo rises to the occasion of playing pomposity (not to mention the token right-wing person of color used to "prove" you don't need to be white to succeed) with a certain ironic pep.
L-R: Kenya Wilson, Monisha Shiva, and Brian Simmons in The Conductor. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Performed in the large open space of Theater for the New City, The Conductor proves too busy for its own good. Director Carla Blank has all she can do to maneuver the comings and goings of the various characters. Designed with many meticulous details by Mark Marcante who’s assisted by Lytza Colon, the set also proves overly busy as it depicts the WLN television network stage left, Warren’s living room stage center, and his dining room / work area stage right.
Like the fussy set design, The Conductor (the title refers to the Underground Railroad) includes countless references to current issues and historical events, but they seem unprocessed and undigested, as if it were up to us to make something of them. Consider this line from Hedda's opening monologue: “The hunt for Shashi Parmar continues, a man who went from hero to evil villain overnight” and who is now “hunted for his relationship with the anti-American firebrand crazy prime minister of India, Siraj ud-Daulah, his roommate at Harvard.” At another point, multiple characters offer up superfluous references to Lord Mountbatten, a Viceroy of British India. Rather than coalesce into something that's rich and complex, these superficial references often come off as tedious pedantry.
An extensive program note conveys the play’s tricky exposition, explaining that Reed, who presents himself as a rebel, “tackles the corporate media’s interpretation of the recall of members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education in 2021-2022. Though the press saw the recall as an expression of Chinese American parents objecting to admission to an elite high school based on a lottery system instead of ‘merit,’ or ‘excellence,’ or ‘grades,’ the Recall would not have been successful without the funds provided by billionaires.”
If this all sounds a bit heavy-handed and off-putting, well, it is. And unfortunately, much of the script consists of different characters lecturing each other (and by extension, us) about what's "really" going on. What is more, while these events received national attention, Reed's script doesn't make a strong case for more universal appeal, so it’s hard to become involved with the drama at hand, and thus difficult to care about the characters that explore it. They’re reminiscent of some of George Bernard Shaw's lesser creations: in lieu of full-bodied individuals to be realized by actors, we just get ideas bouncing off one another on stage. Though the play’s circumstances may be inherently dramatic, The Conductor is ironically without any drama.
(The Conductor plays at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, through March 26, 2023. The running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Performances, which are available in-person and via livestream, are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8; Sundays at 3. Tickets are $18. For tickets and more information, visit theaterforthenewcity.net or call 212-254-1109.)
The Conductor is by Ishmael Reed. Directed by Carla Blank. Set Design by Mark Marcante. Sound and Lighting Design by Alexander Bartenieff. Costume Design by Diana Adelman. Video Documentation by Miles Shebar. Set Decoration and Construction by Lytza Colon. Production Coordinator is T Rome Neal. Stage Manager is Michael Durgavich.
The cast is Emil Guillermo, Imran Javaid, Laura Robards, Brian Simmons, Monisha Shiva, and Kenya Wilson; understudies are Ephraim Kofi Asante, Dimitri Dewes Jr., and Joy Renėe LeBlanc.