Q: How can you maximize the experience of attending the world premiere of an outstanding, exceptionally well-performed play, penned by local playwrights and performed by local talent?
A: Make sure the play in question is Peace of Clay, written by Mike Wiley and Howard L. Craft’s and directed by Aurelia Belfield, and that it features Kyma Lassiter, Rasool Jahan, Myles Walker, Sai Graham, Trevor Johnson, Lauren Foster Lee, and Lakeisha Coffey.
Just to be sure, you might want to add Chris Bernier, Denise Schumaker, Kishara McKnight, Eric Alexander Collins, Charlie Rasche, and Mette Schladweiler as scenic designer, property designer, costume designer, sound designer, lighting/projection designer, and stage manager, respectively.
Wednesday’s opening-night performance at the Theatre Raleigh Arts Center, produced by Theatre Raleigh, in partnership with the North Carolina Theatre, was nothing short of phenomenal! We (along with all of the other masked and socially distanced audience members) were thoroughly mesmerized, starting with the very first line in the opening scene and all the way to lights-down in the final scene. As each scene ended, we burst into applause, and as each between-the-scenes tune played, we clapped-to-the-beat and/or sang along.
The implied pun in the play’s title brings to mind the metaphor of a piece of clay in the hands of a potter. Are we shaped by fate? By circumstance? By our own will? By the will of others? Or is the “potter” a benevolent deity who shapes us to their will.
The play is a slice-of-life (a piece of the life) of Clay Williams (played with poise and passion by Myles Walker), a 17-year-old man who seeks the peace that can only come from self-knowledge and self-actualization. He has a dream of making movies, of telling stories through the medium of film and thereby sharing with others the same gift he had received from his father, a vision of the world as he sees it.
The play is every bit as much about Clay’s mother, Dean Williams (masterly realized by Rasool Jahan) who was widowed seven years earlier. She works long shifts at a local restaurant in order to raise and provide for her son in the less than ideal neighborhood of “the projects.”
Each has a love-interest, and both relationships seem to be experiencing “growing pains.” Clay’s love-interest is his coworker Aisha (portrayed as quite innocent by Lauren Foster Lee); for his mother, it is the loving, fun-loving, and quite loveable Bumbry (played with a nearly perpetual twinkle-in-his-eye by Trevor Johnson). (Side Note: Never before having encountered the name Bumbry, we wondered if the playwrights might be invoking the whimsicality implied by the imaginary character Bunbury in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Clay’s best friend is Marvin (played as a charismatic and well-meaning “rascal” by Sai Graham). Marvin definitely lacks the aspirations (as well as the scruples) that make Clay so admirable. Marvin’s mother, Sheila, is dealing with a drug problem (and, therefore, with a perpetual money problem). Lakeisha Coffey deftly navigates this character through her personal hell.
And as the endearing-yet-earthy Connie, Dean’s coworker and car-pool buddy, Kyma Lassiter is a hoot — ’nuff said!
To the credit of these seven artists (and to their director), we felt as though we personally knew each of the characters — they were so thoroughly and consistently realized.
In addition to the delightfulness of the characters, part of Peace of Clay’s charm lies in the often witty and always down-to-earth naturalness of the dialogue. And yet another measure of charm is the fact that this play tells several interwoven, serious stories while staying lighthearted and comically pleasing 90 percent of the time.
Sound, light, and costumes are all great. Kudos to all of the above-mentioned designers.
Major-league kudos to Chris Bernier for creating so many meticulously realized settings on a single stage. And he earns extra credit for the imaginative means by which a fence instantly morphs into a video store. Also impressive: the “bonus” setting of a basketball court that lies in front of “the stage,” unobtrusive to the point of being unnoticed until lighting and blocking “create” it. (For a real treat, during intermission or after the show, take a peek at the house-left (stage right) side of the basketball hoop; it was visible during the show from our third row, house left seats. We are certain that there is a metaphor implied there.)
This slice of the lives of these characters is riddled with bad luck as well as with conflict. As the excrement continues to hit the electric oscillating air-distribution device, the words of King Lear’s Edgar (in IV.i) came to mind:
O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?
I am worse than e’er I was …
And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’
The play repeatedly touches on the subjects of race-relations and social injustice, but it never gets heavy-handed.
The character’s name “Clay” echoes the name of the protagonist in Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. Are we intended to discern an optimistic message when the fate of “this” Clay is so much better than the fate of “that” Clay?
Random Fact: The word “clay” appears in the Bible 33 times, 27 of which are in the Old Testament.
Between-the-scenes music is a richly diverse mixture of genres.
From the Department of Picky-Picky:
(I am not sure if this can be fixed, BUT:) In one scene, the section of the set that serves as Dean’s apartment the majority of the time becomes Sheila’s apartment. We found this to be a little confusing and were temporarily distracted by the need to deduce: “Ah! Now it’s Sheila’s apartment.”
The idea of online programs is admirable from an environmental perspective as well as from a “keep it touch free” perspective, and a plethora of signs in the lobby offered scanning links to the show’s program. We applaud this decision. However, for whatever reason, we missed it. It was not until after the show that we noticed the signs in the lobby and were able to correct our oversight.
Perhaps, the signs could be mentioned in a precurtain speech, even if just to say: “Get a program during intermission.” Or maybe a half-dozen printed programs could be on hand each night for distribution to those of us who are unobservant and/or to those of us without cell phones.
On the way to our seats, we noticed two small platforms (complete with glow tape spiking) that suggested possible additional acting areas. They are not used in this show. Might they be removed during shows that do not use them?
We heartily recommend Peace of Clay. It runs through Sunday, Oct. 10th, with 8 p.m. performances Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, and 3 p.m. matinees on Sundays.
Mike Wiley and Howard L. Craft’s PEACE OF CLAY (In Person at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24-26 and Sept. 29-Oct. 3), directed by Aurelia Belfield (Theatre Raleigh, in partnership with the North Carolina Theatre, at the Theatre Raleigh Arts Center at 6638 Old Wake Forest Rd. in Raleigh). PROGRAM: https://theatreraleigh.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Peace-Of-Clay-Playbill-.pdf. TRAILERS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WGB6Y3-AMY and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvXs2jnZu-A. TICKETS: $30-$45. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-832-9997 or firstname.lastname@example.org. PLEASE DONATE TO: Theatre Raleigh.
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.