John Grimsley is at the top of his form. Of his forms, I should say. He not only wrote Little Bit (currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater in conjunction with Grimsley's Dog and Pony Theater), he also directed the show, designed and built the set and designed the lighting. Each of these hats he wore with distinction.
While I'm passing out the bouquets, let me offer a few to Mr. Bean as well. Not only is he an entrepreneur of courage and distinction, he is a damn good actor. Keeping a theater (and acting school) afloat is a demanding task. So, we haven't seen Bean take on a major role for a while. His engaging performance as Mr. Hutchins, the central character in Little Bit, makes us hope he'll find a way to spend more time in front of the spotlights.
Little Bit is an example of Bean's entrepreneurial courage. After all, his theater is an outgrowth of the black theater movement that first caught general public attention in the '60s and took root here with companies like Dashiki, Free Southern and Ethiopian, among others. But Grimsley is white. And here he comes up with a play full of African-American characters, treating a current, local African-American story. Now, we all know this sort of cross-cultural project is not only laudable, but a needed sign of hope for the future of our battered city. I must admit, however, I dreaded, just a bit, that the price of such a collaboration would be a certain preachiness. I knew the play was about school, but I feared it might be like going to school.
I bring this up, in case any of you, my readers, suffer from the world-weary curmudgeonliness that afflicts me. Relax. Little Bit is downright fascinating, totally unpredictable and if it's preaching something, I don't know what that doctrine might be. "Human, all too human" is about as close as I can come. The characters are complicated creatures with faults and virtues. This is a drama, not a lesson.
The whole play takes place in a classroom. Well, not really. The scenes are all acted out in the set of a classroom, but the world invades that classroom at will. In one wonderful, shocking moment early on, a grandma in a summer dress and slippers scuffles into the classroom, while stirring a pot of food. She stirs the pot right on a corner of the desk, where Mr. Hutchins, the teacher, sits silent and immobile -- both there and not there. In fact, although the scenery hasn't changed, the location has. We are in the home of Lily Beth, one of the students. The woman is her grandma. This clever staging device has superimposed the world of the student onto the world of the school. What a simple and telling way to establish that connection. You might call it experimental or daring or something of the sort. And it is. But the innovation is not for showy effect. It's a great way to tell the story.
It would be a shame to narrate much of that story here, for the twists and turns of the plot are part of the enjoyment. Since the characters are complicated, you never get ahead of them. You're always gripped, following, guessing and often guessing wrong.
Mr. Hutchins is an idealist. He is flawed, but trying to help. Interestingly, we see him also as a boy (Antonius Prader) -- his inner child, you might say. Again, this staging is effective, as it brings his childhood into the classroom as well, even as he struggles to communicate with other people's children.
Lily Beth (Amber N. Wilkinson) is a bright, talented girl, but she starts acting up. In his efforts to reach Lily Beth, Hutchins is drawn into the drama of her home life -- which consists of her uncle (the versatile Leo Jones) and his mother (Brittney James).
Among the side characters are an Afro-centric colleague of Hutchins (Harold Evans), a mailman with a crush on the grandma (Wilbert Williams) and Lily Beth's headstrong, rebellious boyfriend (Kenneth Brown Jr.).
The cast is excellent and creates a believable, troubling world -- or, as the Bard suggested, they hold a mirror up to the troubling world we live in. Another well known playwright, Sam Shepard, once said his goal was to have the audience leave the theater knowing a little less than when they entered. Little Bit also lives up to that ironic goal.
This is a sterling piece of local original theater. Do yourself a favor and take a look.
- In Little Bit, (left to right) Leo Jones, Brittney James, Anthony Bean (seated) and Wilbert Williams want to help a troubled student without losing a teacher.