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Questioning black life in Cell Phone Blues

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As proven by Exonerated and The Laramie Project, there's a new niche for dramas that are scrupulously researched and presented with documentary-style objectivity. Robert Johnson Jr.'s Cell Phone Blues is akin to those docudramas, taking up the question of black life in America -- Charlotte, actually -- on the eve of Barack Obama's election to the presidency.

Johnson works with an anthropologist's accuracy in depicting lower middle-class family strife, casual boozing and drug use, political apathy and pessimism, vague constricted aspirations, and an all-but-extinguished spark of initiative, pragmatism, and common sense. But he's not intrepid enough to break down the fourth wall between his characters and his audience, trusting to a format that recalls the conventions of Raisin in the Sun but seems much older.

During the spring primaries of 2008, Charles and Shirley Ann Jackson have a new problem layered onto their perennial disagreement over whether to move out of their current apartment. There's a series of long calls on Shirley Ann's cell phone bill rousing Charles' jealousy. Meanwhile, their college-bound daughter Rachel has met a much older man -- with a criminal record -- while working on the Obama campaign. The other member of the household, Timothy, an old friend of Charles' since their childhood days in Gastonia, seems more inclined toward drinking and playing music at bars than waking up and showing up at a work line -- or moving out of the Jacksons' to a place of his own.

Exposition of these storylines is clumsy enough, but Johnson is even more gauche in bringing us closure and resolution. We never learn who Shirley Ann was speaking to or what those calls were about. When Rachel is thrown in jail for drug dealing, we never learn where the money comes from for her bail -- after the question of dipping into the family's savings detonates a huge eruption between her parents. Nor does Johnson even have the finesse to keep his story going until Obama is actually elected in fall 2008. That might have obligated the playwright to stamp some explicit perspective on the existential waste and corruption he has presented.

All these missed opportunities cannot be obscured by even the finest performances, but what we see could be hugely improved upon. Unfortunately, director Aisha Dew's work on the script is a far cry from the aptitude she displayed in Topdog/Underdog at CAST in 2007. Dew's direction here appears painfully stillborn, her cast moving around on the Booth Playhouse stage too infrequently, diligently looking out across the hall instead of at each other.

Janalyn Moonie Walton as Rachel (replaced this week by Nicole Danielle Watts) and Terry Norman as Shirley Ann emerge with the most natural portrayals in these trying circumstances. Delvin H. Sayles has a dull thuggishness that I like as David Wallace, the violence-prone drug-dealing Lothario, but I'd also like to see the savagery of the ex-con.

At times, Michael Connor locks in admirably to Charles and his oppressed mentality, but there are other times, particularly a long drunken scene, where he's an embarrassment. Portrayals of drunks begin in the eyes, not the knees. Connor is often teamed with John Price, having his customary line struggles as Timothy but covering them up better than ever. It doesn't help that Connor and Price are imprisoned in an excruciatingly long scene near the top of the evening that has no solid purpose or forward thrust. They both have abundant reasons to feel oppressed in that predicament. So do we.

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