“It ain’t the end of the world–it just looks like it.” That haunting observation comes from one of the refugees holed up in a South–Central bar as the 1992 riots rage on, in Patrick Sheane Duncan’s gripping new drama “Souls on Fire,” at the Met Theatre.
Making some sense of the conflagration is the valuable goal in this view from the inferno. The play manages to keep a frail spark of humanity alive despite its tough–minded look at the grim realities of racial strife. The still–festering wounds bared by the riots won’t undergo any real healing, asserts Miles (Sam Scarber), the beleaguered owner of Soul’s Bar, until we look behind the camouflage for the real sources of the problem.
Inadvertently, close proximity forces Duncan’s cross–section of the Angeleno melting pot–blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites–to do just that as they hunker down for a lengthy siege. The roots of violence the play unearths aren’t couched in sociological cant or numbing statistics, but rather in the sloppy, thoughtless and often ludicrously petty mistakes of everyday life.
A truck driver (Steve Hartley) is nearly beaten to death because he ventured into the wrong area, even though he shares a sense of outrage at the police acquittals. A gangbanger (Breck White) who finds rare peace watching tropical fish arouses only the hatred of a fearful pet shop owner (Ping Wu). Even the scrupulously decent Miles–a self–made black entrepreneur who gives jobs to wayward youths–tramples on the hard–won self–confidence of an independent Latina businesswoman (Charo Toledo) as he blurts out his sexist romantic ideals.
In this bar, everybody knows your epithet.
Impeccably shaded performances from the entire ensemble infuse these characters with quirky diversity. Considerable levity and some of the most moving sequences are supplied by Miles’ regular patrons–wry, cerebral Lenny (Jeris Lee Poindexter), a compulsive gambler with a knack for rescuing riot victims every time he steps outside, and slow–moving Short Stack, a curmudgeon who excels at deflating the pretensions of all races and creeds.
At his best, Duncan wraps potent messages in naturalistic dialogue–the first act is a model of near–poetic economy. Some rethinking is warranted in the second, however, where the author’s earnestness gets in the way of his dramaturgy and some characters lapse into sermonizing. Also, an awkward epilogue wraps up loose ends rendered irrelevant by the finale.
Structural reservations aside, the piece is an unqualified emotional powerhouse thanks to the inexorable tension built by Bennet Guillory’s masterful staging.
Amid its courageous if disquieting insistence that understanding causes may not be enough to work through our divisions, the play’s sole ray of hope is the common thread of decency it finds on all sides of the racial divides. Whether we can parlay that into respectful co–existence is the challenge laid out in no uncertain terms.