Al Letson’s ‘John Coffey’ places critical and piercing conversation of race on 5 & Dime stage


Al Letson isn’t letting anyone off the hook.

If that’s not clear in the buildup to John Coffey Refuses to Save the World, it becomes abundantly so when these imaginary characters get real.

“Black lives matter and so do imaginary black lives,” Letson says after opening night of his play’s first-ever staging, for The 5 & Dime, A Theatre Company.

The setup appears simple enough but also incredibly demanding of a talented cast — take fictional characters we know and know too well, then trap them in a room together. They are John Coffey of The Green Mile, the god of Bruce Almighty, Mother Abigail of The Stand, and Bagger of The Legend of Bagger Vance.

You might call them the “League of Extraordinary Black Stereotypes.”

Here, as they’ve been called in the past by Spike Lee and others, they’re “Magical Negroes.”

Playwright Letson and director Michelle Simkulet utilize them to far more potent effect than their creators ever did — or could.

“The important thing about this script is that a lot of people who are creating our entertainment don’t understand black people,” Letson explained.

Letson makes it clear that his writing of these characters, especially John, came from a place of love, not loathing. Here, they fight for a chance to defy — if defying means simply to live real lives.

Letson wrote the play on a trip to the southeast African Republic of Malawi in 2012 — before the killing of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Letson points out he could have written the play in 2000 or 2017. The news may be different, but the fact remains: “America does not deal with its race problem.”

The WJCT host and producer of State of the Re:Union and Reveal, poet and artist may not be able to see the future, but he remains at the leading edge of critical conversations.

Each character in John Coffey has grown accustomed to a call from the purgatorial “Room of Magical Negroes” to play their roles. They must, or god knows what will happen. Actually, not even “god with a little g” knows, but he has his fears.

The creative team behind John Coffey needed someone to stir all that up. That’s where Legba comes in as a character whom Letson says “has a streak in him. It could also be described as a streak of joy.”

He has so many names, but Legba is not the devil. He’s pulled from the West African tradition of trickster, but he’s not evil, not even necessary evil. He’s necessary rabble-rouser.

David Girard brings Legba to life with just the right balance of playfulness and underlying edge (the trickster has been reading self-help literature after all). He presses the action with a whisper in an ear and that sharp edge, only when necessary.

Meanwhile, Larry Knight owns the stage, embodying John Coffey in a way that defies caricature. Early on, his gentleness and joy fill the room — a room which happens to be the Museum of Science & History’s Planetarium (more on that later).

Knight’s brilliance provides the necessary contrast for the existential crisis of John Coffey, who has the hardest story to live — destined to walk the Green Mile to his execution again and again. A little prodding by Legba has him ready to sit that out, even if it means the end of the world. But whose world are we talking about?

After repeated needling, Legba reminds, “Oh, calm down, calm down. I’m just fuckin’ witchya’. That’s why they call it fuckin’ with ya!”

The 5 & Dime creative team meld a set of unmatched chairs, crates and bottled water — the proverbial leftovers — with MOSH’s Planetarium light show. It’s a setting Letson couldn’t have possibly imagined when he conceived the play but embraced fully when pondering his first staging.

You might be left craving a bit more of the Planetarium’s wizardry, but Simkulet — WJCT’s CreativeWorX Manager — proves measured, holding back to give critical room to Letson’s piercing narrative, especially in one monologue from Eugene Lindsey’s little g as he explains that the Magical Negros “are the night … the evidence of things not seen.”

Here, Letson refers not only to these avatars and who they represent, but to all the ignored.

Minutes before the first staging, Letson tells me that this script is “Version 8,” but it’s clear that the editing continues in his mind. Letson says that much of this casting was done on the page, way back on “V. 1,” because he knew Knight had to be Coffey, knew Lindsey was “god,” knew Steven Anderson had to play Bagger. Meanwhile, Girard was the absolute embodiment of trickster. They ultimately come together as family.

Lindsey goes Morgan Freeman to necessary effect in narration, though holds back on the movie star’s well-known mannerisms. Rita Churchwell’s portrayal of Mother Abigail strikes an understated chord, especially after her return from the “real world.”

Bill Ratliff, an early contender for local theater performance of the year as Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency at Players by the Sea, will draw raves again here. He and Brooks Anne Meierdierks come on late and take turns injecting humor.

Spoiling any of those surprises, even their characters, would be criminal. (Keep your playbills closed to retain those surprises.)

The talent of the cast can’t be debated, though there were rough edges on opening night. An early section of the script was mistakenly skipped, leading to some confusion.

These misses are few, and given that it was the cast’s first performance on the MOSH stage, they can be forgiven.

During Saturday night’s second performance, those missteps were gone, as the cast hit on every note and the story resonated even more.

With Letson’s star rising nationally and the importance of this subject matter, expect more productions of John Coffey in Duval and beyond. Local audiences have only two more chances to see this first run — Friday, April 24, and Saturday, April 25, at MOSH.

The play asks big questions, some on the surface, some deeper.

Often, Legba reminds of the importance of “Location, Location, Location,” and as each layer of the play’s locations are revealed, we see that Letson isn’t holding back on the world’s evils and its lies.

On center stage is the lie of equality in America, a conversation that Letson is forcing us to have on many fronts.

Legba offers: “If the world is built on a lie, maybe it should crumble.”

“Maybe,” little g replies, “but do you want all that blood on your hands?”

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