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First Nighter: Lemon Andersen's 'Toast' Looks at Attica Up Close and Personal

05/05/2015 07:49 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Lemon Andersen's Toast, printed some places as ToasT, takes place in an Attica Correctional Facility cellblock during late summer 1971. The year isn't immediately specified, but it's mentioned in due time and, when it is, gives the play, at the Public Theater, a dramatic boost and a dramatic crimp.

The boost is its implication that Andersen intends to offer a view of what conditions were like leading to the riot in which inmates and guards were killed and headlines and news footage screamed around the globe. The drawback is that the riot's approach is pending and therefore episodes attenuated before the inevitable event--several are palpably stretched--become stage waits.

Andersen begins his drama by sending out a barely closeted intellectual inmate known as Hard Rock (F. Hill Harper) to talk about the unlikely subject of peace. Hard Rock is also there, as becomes clear before fade-out on the two-act work, to represent the potential of men as well as the loss of men's potential in a harsh society. And by the way, to underline Anderson's sense of irony the articulate fellow utters the word "peace" at another crucial moment in the action.

The other cell block residents--who while away time playing cards at a makeshift card table, dreaming up elaborate toasts (hence the title) and completing work assignments (never seen)--include the older and self-contained Dolomite (Keith David), homosexual Annabelle Jones (Phillip James Brannon), tough guy Stackolee (John Earl Jenks), quieter Hobo Ben (Jonathan Peck) and Puerto Rican newcomer Jesse James (Armando Riesco). Overseeing them are hard-nosed, by-the-book Sheriff Jody (Dan Butler) and G. I. Joe (Teddy Canez), whose streak of humanity is drummed from him before the lights go out in more ways than one.

Andersen goes about filling in cellblock life by regularly incorporating frayed nerves and racist friction. At one point, Jesse James, on edge as the only non-African American, pulls a shiv and is only subdued after above-it-all group leader Dolomite talks him down. Before long it's revealed that all the inmates pack barely concealed weapons.

At another point, Dolomite, having kept his departure date from the others--and especially Annabelle, who gives him sexual comfort--expresses his reluctance to leave prison. He insists there's nothing for him in the outside world. It's Jesse James who comments that freedom is just another prison where the people you hate are just closer.

Later, Sheriff Jody, who also relies on Annabelle for the occasional servicing, and G. I. Joe have a confrontation over the place of reform in an institution where there are bars on the windows. Jody, who's inflexible, even threatens to fire Joe unless he ceases all efforts to befriend the inmates. Perhaps it's this heated exchange that serves as explanation for the fury of the Attica uprising.

How accurate Andersen is about daily Attica life as it moves toward the riot is difficult to assess, although verisimilitude seems achieved. Andersen makes his case so well that he needn't go on as long as he does. For instance, there's one too many card game interrupted by inmate-versus-inmate conflict. Andersen has Dolomite waffle about his departure at unnecessary length. On the other hand, the robin's-egg-blue zoot suit in which he intends to hit the street is something to see. It's the one time costumer Dede Ayite is able to stray from standard uniforms for the staff and unobtrusive street clothes for the inmates.

Under Elise Thoron's direction on Alexis Distler's set with its sliding prison panels, the cast to a man performs with involving muscularity. And although part of the riot occurs in the cellblock, it's up to lighting designer Jen Schriever and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz to supply the worse aspects of the Attica calamity as it's erupting elsewhere.

Trying to place any other Attica-based works that have emerged in the intervening decades, I pulled a blank. This one arriving 44 years on seems delayed, but here it is. It may not work completely as the be-all-end-all rationale for 1971 irrationality, but it's of attention-inducing substance.