Review: ‘Willie Lynch’ play explores generational struggle to break bonds of mental oppression

By Sharon Eberson

Willie Lynch may have existed. And if he did, he may have addressed Virginia plantation owners in 1712 about his blueprint for managing enslaved Africans. His method, he vowed, would provide the means to oppress Black people in America for at least 300 years to come.

What it is known as the Willie Lynch Letter, full of anachronisms that have cast doubt on its authenticity, found its way onto the Internet and into a Louis Farrakhan speech as representing a nonviolent, diabolical strategy for oppression: sow distrust and disunity within the Black population, and they will be at the mercy of white tyranny.

Lamar K. Cheston, front, with from left, Anthony Goss, David Roberts
and Reggie Wilson in Layon Gray’s “Searching for Willie Lynch,”
presented by New Horizon Theater, Inc.

In Layon Gray’s Searching for Willie Lynch, a powerful, spiritual play about one family’s uphill battle for survival, the existence of the so-called “syndrome” that pits Black people against each other is mentioned briefly, in the second act. However, it is ever present, as seen through the fortunes of three generations of Foster men and their personal battles between ingrained mental bondage and the will to break those bonds.

The New Horizon Theater presentation, at City Theatre’s Lilllie Theatre on the South Side through Sunday, November 19, continues a longstanding relationship that brings works by actor/writer/director/producer Gray to Pittsburgh.

Best known for the play Black Angels Over Tuskegee, Gray’s works, sparked by historical events or figures, delve into and reveal truths about the Black American experience, from a modern perspective.

The production of Searching for Willie Lynch meets its ambitions head-on, interweaving three time periods – 1925, 1965 and Election Day 2008, when Barack Obama was first on the ballot. A thunderstorm, both literal and internal, sweeps across the ages, affecting the three families as each experiences traumatic events and hard choices.

We start in 1965, in the ancestral home of Basil and Charlene (Layon Gray and Nicolette Ellis), and also are introduced to on-the-run Rahman and Phebe (David Roberts and Ashley Victoria Scott), circa 1925. 

We stay in the same space, at a different time, shared by Basil and Charlene’s son, Mo (Thaddeus Daniels) and his son, Cricket (Lamar K. Cheston), with Cricket’s pal Peanut (Anthony Goss) a constant in their lives.

Confusion turns quickly to understanding as these Foster family members from different time periods cross paths before our eyes. Doors become time portals and a storm rages across the years, while scenes from different periods at times coincide as the stories advance apace. 

We learn quickly that the Foster patriarchs have common goals, such as the desire for honest work and lives led with dignity and pride. But achieving those goals, in a world that where the Willie Lynch method abounds, can be elusive, to say the least.

The raging storm outside (kudos to Wayne Gaines, credited as sound consultant) and roiling within the intertwined stories reach a fever pitch as characters from each era cross paths, mostly without noticing the other, but at other moments, feeling – and hearing – the connection across the years. 

On Friday, the production’s second night at the Lillie, the conceit was pulled off without a hitch by a uniformly fine cast, including Gray’s heartfelt, heartbreaking performance as Basil and the delightfully irrepressible Ellis as Basil’s pregnant wife, Charlene, circa 1965. 

Several of these cast members will be familiar to television watchers, including Cheston (Law & Order: Organized Crime and A League of Their Own, among others). As Cricket, Cheston is a studious but sensitive dreamer who, in 2008, can feel a change coming – not necessarily for the better. Peanut looks up to his friend as a visionary, but Cricket’s father, Mo, has on blinders this day. 

Mo is headed to work and a possible promotion in a factory where he has worked for 19 years. The father has no time for his son’s warnings. He just wants Cricket to get a job.

From out of the past, Mo’s grandparents, Rahman and Phebe, are in crisis – they have been involved in an incident that could bring the police to the door at any moment. 

Everyone is having a rough day, and things grow even worse for Mo. A knock at the door ushers in staunch businessman Davis Harlin (Reggie Wilson) – an arrival that bodes ill for the Fosters’ future. 

In the 1920s and ’60s, the women are more emotionally present than the Foster men, leading to some tender and humorous moments. In 2008, it’s a harrowing tale by Goss’ Peanut and an epiphany sparked by Cheston’s visionary Cricket that may lead to a redemption that no one saw coming.

Gray’s clever juggling of the space-time continuum illustrates how the struggles of yesterday can lead to a tomorrow in which Willie Lynch’s methods may finally be buried for good.

The show’s program cover indicates that the name “Lynch” may stem from lynchings of people of color – another theory indicating that “Willie Lynch” may have been conjured from the racist ether. 

That launch point is among the elements that set Searching for Willie Lynch apart from other works of familial love set alongside Black-on-Black violence and betrayal, notably explored throughout August Wilson’s works and in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Gray’s play carries on that tradition, skillfully combining pain and beauty into a work of emotional truth, and the possibility of a better tomorrow.

The play, as all good plays do, made me want to know more about its historical context. For one writer’s real-life search for Willie Lynch, visit https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1998-02-22-1998053003-story.html

Searching for Willie Lynch is presented in Pittsburgh by New Horizon Theater, Inc., at the Lillie Theatre, South Side, through Sunday,  November 20. Tickets: newhorizontheater.org or 412-431-0773.

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