One of the coolest things about the Unicorn Theatre is that it has the reputation and the skill needed to debut plays that haven’t been produced anywhere else. The current show at the Unicorn Theatre, BlackTop Sky is an example of that. This world premiere even has a local connection — playwright Christina Anderson lives and writes in New York, but she is from Kansas City, Kan.
The play, which runs through Feb. 10, is a quiet, intimate chronicle of three African American residents of the housing projects. Ida is frustrated with her living situation and is striving for an opportunity to improve her life. Her boyfriend, Wynn, is a more relaxed fellow who accepts where he is and tries to make the best of it, while comforting and encouraging Ida. When Ida loses her keys, they are picked up by a strange homeless man named Klass. As Ida tries to recover her property, she and Klass begin an uneasy friendship that opens up their fragile lives — and upsets Wynn.
I was impressed by the script. It raises issues of class and race, and even mental illness. It could have easily turned into the usual preachy call for social justice, but playwright Anderson offers a much more sophisticated — and realistic — perspective. She knows that we can’t expect justice from the system if we don’t get it from each other.
It would also have been easy to turn the show into a love triangle; as a matter of fact, that’s what Wynn suspects is happening between Ida and Klass. But again, Anderson is aiming for something different. It is refreshing to see the unfolding friendship between the two, without the trite and tired drama of jealous romance.
The set is simple and poignant — the entire play takes place on a pair of park benches in the courtyard of the housing project, so the stage is surrounded by chain-link fence and littered with the detritus of inner-city neighborhoods. Stage hands, cleverly dressed as neighborhood residents, periodically deliver trash, which Klass uses as he constructs his private little world in the middle of everyone.
Chioma Anyanwu plays Ida. I always enjoy seeing her on stage, and she doesn’t disappoint here. She portrays Ida in a way that makes her situation accessible to people from any walk of life. Frank Oakley III plays Wynn. He’s a new addition to the Unicorn, and although he didn’t always seem totally comfortable in his role on stage, he has an undeniable presence and charm as Ida’s sometimes-too-strong boyfriend.
And then there’s Tosin Morohunfola, who plays Klass. Rarely have I seen an actor with such fiery, undeniable charisma. He commands the stage, even when he’s not talking (which is often). He has internalized his role to such a degree that he can portray multiple emotions on his face at the same time — we see his inner struggles made manifest. He brings believability, pathos and anger to his aching character, and this is one of the best performances of the entire season.
BlackTop Sky is a fresh and relevant look at some important American topics.
For tickets, go to www.unicorntheatre.org or call 816-531-7529 Ext. 10.