Cycles of self-destruction can be painful to witness. But when they form the foundation of a beautifully written and acted story that seeks to illuminate the truth about what perpetuates those cycles, the pain is tempered by a deeper understanding. Empathy takes hold, tinged with anger, frustration and a sense of the ineffable inevitable.
In the world premiere of Josh Wilder’s Marty and the Hands that Could, which has its final performance on May 21, virtually every cycle is self-destructive. Characters fight against the way things have always been, craving change but succumbing to a combination of sabotage and self-sabotage.
Marty (Matthew Elam) has just been released from prison. He returns to his Philadelphia home the day before his birthday, vowing, “25 will be lit.” Things will be different now, because during his time behind bars, he wrote every day and has a book’s worth of hard-won wisdom. Publishing that book would offer something tangible, to uplift others and himself. Anything not to be a bum.
Yet that’s how he still appears to those he’s returning to. His father Mike (Montae Russell) asks him, “Did you learn you lesson?” and immediately demands repayment of $40 borrowed an entire prison sentence ago. Money permeates the play, defining relationships and building a sense of hopelessness.
Marty, denigrated and demoralized almost as soon as he nears his family home, tells his father, “All you do is shoot down a dream.”
His mother Neet (Bernadette Speakes), a veteran of her son’s cycles, doesn’t want to take him in. His Uncle Nick (Joshua R. Lamont), a veteran of another kind, is not functioning well himself.
Marty turns to his cousin Junior (Aaron Shaw), home on a mysterious “break” from college only a month into the semester. He asks Junior to transcribe his book so he can get it published. But Junior has his own problems—plus he can’t read Marty’s cursive. (Cursive is a running joke through the play.)
His Aunt Tan (Joy DeMichelle Moore) welcomes Marty back with a prayer session clouded by a sense of doom. Religion can’t change his trajectory. The appearance of Angel (Akilah Walker) with a baby born during Marty’s incarceration further seals his fate, as well as Neet’s–the matriarch carries the heaviest load.
Everyone is trapped, as the cycles of poverty, addiction and incarceration endure. Yet there are moments of humor and a deep sense of love underlying the damage.
In a time jump, Marty’s son becomes eight-year-old Lil’ Mar (Camden Coley) and adds a third generation to the proceedings. He’s smart and appears to be on the right track—just as Junior had been.
Director Larry Powell expertly guides this emotional journey. Alternately draining and uplifting, it presents incarceration and addiction as the destructive forces at work against family safety and prosperity. The message is not preachy, just matter of fact, that ineffable inevitability. The cast completely inhabits their complex and gripping characters.
Scenic designer Yohannes Yamassee, sound designer Alexis Tongue, costume designer Sankara McCain and the rest of the production team add immeasurably to the force and power of this production. It well serves the Watts Village Theater Company’s mission to “inspire action and dialogue about contemporary social issues.”
Performances of Marty and the Hands that Could run through May 21 on Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm and 6:00pm. The venue is Phoenix Hall at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, 10950 S. Central Ave., just north of the 105. There is ample on-site parking. Tickets are $20-35 and are available here.