'Before It Hits Home'
When: In repertory with "Born Guilty" through March 3.
Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave., S.W., Washington.
Call: (202) 488-3300.
*** Cheryl West's "Before It Hits Home" is one of the first plays about AIDS in the black community. But unlike many issue-oriented scripts, it isn't a message-laden tirade.
Instead, this moving drama focuses on the disease's impact on one family -- an upstanding, church-going, middle-class black family.
The play is effective not because it preaches -- which it rarely does -- or because of the loaded subject of AIDS. It works because it makes the audience re-examine the nature of familial love, understanding and responsibility.
It also works because the style of Ms. West's writing and Tazewell Thompson's direction are so well suited to the material. The protagonist, Wendal, is a saxophonist who has AIDS. He is also bisexual, and in the early scenes, when he tries to tell his male and female lovers about his disease, the play takes the form of overlapping contrapuntal phrases in a jazz melody. In the final moments, when a passage from the beginning reappears unexpectedly, the impression is as jarring as a sudden shift to a minor key.
But the interplay of family emotions is what gets to you. Rejected by both lovers, Wendal -- portrayed with commendable understatement by Michael Jayce -- returns home to his parents, who are also raising his young son. Our first view of the Bailey family suggests that Wendal's mother, Reba, is the doting sort who spoiled him shamelessly and that his father, a small businessman, favors Wendal's responsible, conventional older
brother, an Army sergeant.
But people aren't always what they seem -- sometimes not even to themselves, as this play poignantly demonstrates. In a disturbingly powerful performance as Reba, Trazana Beverley initially acts as if her son can do no wrong, but she doesn't really know him. When confronted with Wendal's bisexuality and AIDS, she turns hardhearted and closed-minded, refusing to stay under the same roof with her dying son.
In contrast, as Wendal's father, Wally Taylor at first appears to be an unemotional disciplinarian. But he's the one who, unquestioningly and unstintingly, assumes the role of Wendal's caretaker. In the process, Mr. Taylor earns our respect both for his character and his performance.
Ms. West has leavened this tragic story with a touch of humor, much of which belongs to brassy Sandra Reaves-Phillips, who plays Reba's best friend, Maybelle. As Wendal correctly assesses, his mother is closer to Maybelle than to her own family.
AIDS isn't the only illness that hits the Bailey home; it's also afflicted by the hatred and intolerance lodged deep in a mother's heart. "Before It Hits Home" suggests that the most damaging secret is the one we keep from ourselves.