REVIEW: First Words (MPAACT Theatre)

Illuminating "First Words"

 

Adian with blocks Distorted

MPAACT  presents:

First Words

 

by Aaron Carter
directed by Chuck Smith
through February 28th (more info)

Review by K.D. Hopkins

It may be incomprehensible for some to understand a parent’s pain and terror upon learning that something is not quite right with their child. It has been my experience in the African American community that disabilities were an insular subject. It was dealt with within the family and with the support of a tight knit neighborhood. There were no special schools or classes. It was often considered up to ‘the Lord’s will’ how someone with a disability coped in the world. MPAACT productions First Words is a lovingly crafted and honest look at autism and how a family dissolves under the pressures of reality and self-delusion.

Family Paul and Barbara are played as a normal and loving couple that has managed to coexist with their differences and the challenge of their autistic son Aiden. Paul carries religious wounds from a strict father and lives in fear of blasphemy lest he be punished. Andre Teamer plays the character of Paul. He projects a beautiful tension and frailty in his role as the father. Tina Marie Wright is a wonderful counterpoint as Barbara who is breaking under the strain of Aiden’s increasingly violent outbursts and no seeming way to get through to her son. Her performance is finely nuanced and subtle. Scott Baity Jr. plays the troubled and sometimes menacing Aiden with a coiled ferocity that was shocking and projected the helplessness of the autistic world.

The role of Diane, the facilitated communications expert, is played by Lauren Malara. Barbara’s character expects her to be an Ivy League White girl and is surprised when it is an Ivy League Black girl who walks in the door. Ms. Malara projects the epitome of fresh-faced enthusiasm. The character of Diane is an advocate of research and empirical evidence  – until she sees the flaws in her methods.

Chuck Smith, whose rendition of James Baldwin’s “Amen Corner” at the Goodman was brilliant, directs this play. It is everyday life in the African American community that has been for the most part remanded to literary interpretation. These are people that I have known and not a glossy film retelling for palatability’s sake. The direction is flowing and I loved the added dimension of the characters projected behind them as they spoke. It underscored what seems to be in an autistic person’s mind: so much stimuli and in so many forms that it cannot be sorted out to the point where a touch can be the breaking point.

The set dressing seems to have been taken from a home in Morgan or Maple Park on the south side of Chicago. The family pictures in color and sepia tone were a wonderful touch as was the glowing white Bible on its own shelf. Mr. Teamer is the props master for this production and I presume that his character of Paul fed into the prop selection.

Adian w light writer cropped Aaron Carter, the playwright for First Words, has an interesting lineage of Baptist preacher and Vaudeville according to his biography notes. He has taken the best of both and crafted a fine play. There is the high dudgeon of fiery Baptist preaching and the slight of hand in Vaudeville without falling into the grotesque. The most compelling scenes are between Ms. Wright and Mr. Baity. Barbara is driven to break the silence and she has nightmares in which Aiden speaks. It becomes the adage of be careful of what you ask for-surely you will get it.

There are no easy answers or resolution to the controversy of facilitated communication for autistic persons in First Words. It is a searing presentation of what happens to a family when faith is divided and trust is broken in pursuit of answers. It is about the perception of what the parental bond means to a God-fearing father and a self-professed heathen mother. The answers are locked inside Aiden’s head as well as his parent’s dreams. The final moment of the play drives the ‘not knowing’ home with one subtle gesture. This production is highly recommended

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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First Words” runs Thursdays through Sundays January 28th through February 28th at The Greenhouse Theatre Center. 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. The Box Office number is 773-404-7336. Parents take note: this play contains adult language and scenes of violence.

One Response

  1. […] Carter:  First Words  -  MPAACT (review ★★★★) Ellen Fairey:  Graceland  -  Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★) […]

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