Director and actor L. Peter Callender (Pops) and actress Vanesa Rendon (LuLu). Photos courtesy of Beth Reynolds
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
PETERSBURG — At American Stage’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside & Crazy,” audience reaction to the hilarious and emotionally charged play reveals why the drama won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. With only a week left of performances, it’s a timely “dramedy” that’s worth rushing down to grab tickets to see before it’s gone.
The play revolves around the character of Pops – who is played with piercing adeptness and high-powered skill by L. Peter Callender. The plot is part chess game, part family drama and abounds with biting humor.
More than just an embittered ex-New York City police officer who’s been wronged, Pops is a humanist with a heart as wide as the sea — evidenced by his unfaltering support of his formerly imprisoned son Junior (enjoyable played by Enoch King), as well as his decision to open his home to Junior’s sketchy-if-amply-endowed lover LuLu (a humorous Vanesa Rendon) and his ex-con homeboy, Oswaldo (who, as rendered by Donovan Whitney, totters between being both an affable fool and a drunken danger).
Pops’ irreverent humor offers side-splitting laughs that elevate the experience beyond its sociopolitical underpinnings, allowing the playwright’s thought-provoking handling of issues on race, personal responsibility, gun violence and city politics to shine through.
Ultimately, Pops deliberates his response to the pivotal question of whether to sign a financial agreement and non-disclosure contract presented by politico Lieutenant Caro (whose power-starved personality is well-played by Ricky Wayne) and Pops’ former partner and Caro’s fiancé Detective O’Connor (also nicely drawn by Vickie Doignault).
A play of endings and beginnings, when Pops is confronted by a mysterious “Church Lady” who may be a Candomble priestess (played ingeniously by Sara Oliva), his destiny takes an unexpected turn.
The character of Pops is a powerhouse role – undoubtedly one of the boldest and most audaciously outspoken characters found in the theater pantheon of “black fathers with a lot on their hearts and minds.”
Director and actor L. Peter Callender, who plays Pops, is no stranger to American Stage, having directed three award-winning productions at the theater in the past, including January’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” August Wilson’s “Jitney” and “Joe Turner’s Come & Gone.”
But his portrayal of Pops is a revelation; it takes chops to embody this character, who lives with physical pain, is scarred from years of personal and professional battles and can spew potty language with hilarious, effervescent charm. Throughout, Callender makes Pops soar.
With a resume of performance experience including more than 20 Shakespeare plays–as well as directing several more as artistic director of San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company — Callender shared that he felt more than prepared for the epic role of Pops.
“Shakespeare’s work is universal; those works have prepared me over the years to do this play, to do August Wilson, to do Ibsen, Chekov. Shakespeare’s work prepares actors to do everything in the canon of American or European theater,” Callender said. “If you have a background in Shakespeare and the classics, everything is possible. So, I can get a role like Pops and be clear and powerful, touching and gentle and tearful, and play it fully. And not just act but behave. So, audiences will see behavior as opposed to just acting.”
Callender had nothing but raves regarding his experience at American Stage, both as an actor and director, and is excited about coming back to direct American Stage’s upcoming production of MacArthur Genius awardee Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” during Jan. 2019.
“Pipeline” takes on single-motherhood, a young black teen and the school-to-prison pipeline. It has garnered critical acclaim across the nation.
“Between Riverside & Crazy” does use strong language; Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte shared her staunch belief in presenting the play regardless of its expletives.
“Do I believe that these characters would speak this way under those circumstances,” she asked herself. “If the play is well-written, the answer is an undeniable ‘Yes.’”
She also shares playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ explanation why he uses curse words “to depict reality.” ‘I’m not trying to advance a social cause. I write what I hear. And the characters that I write, that’s how they talk.”’
Director Benjamin T. Ismail brings an energizing touch to the drama, heightening the production’s contemporary feel with driving hip-hop, funky R&B and contemporary pop between scenes. Jerid Fox’s production design incorporates a revolving stage that adds a rhythmic shift to the passing of time.
You have one more weekend to catch this fantastic show; call the box office for group seats. Take advantage of free tickets for students under the age of 20 with American Stage’s new UNDER 20 PASSPORT.
“Between Riverside & Crazy” is at American Stage, 163 3rd St. N, St. Petersburg, until Sunday, Nov. 4. Call (727) 823-PLAY (7529) or visit AmericanStage.org.
To reach J.A. Jones, email email@example.com.