A play and a history lesson, Richard Wesley’s The Talented Tenth is a rich theater experience combining a juicy and engaging story with background on Black history and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (specifically Howard University).
The story revolves around Bernard (Nic Few). He’s often seen looking off into the distance, considering his future as a husband to Pam (Tiffany Coty) and top executive of a group of Black-owned radio stations owned by Griggs (Ben Guillory, the Robey’s artistic director, who also directs). He and his wife are often with their three friends: Ron (Stirling Bradley), who’s single, and husband and wife Marvin (Julio Hanson) and Rowena (Monte Escalante).
Bernard has excelled in life, trained by Griggs to see success not just as money, but as contributing to a community. Griggs tells him at the beginning of the play, “Fantasizing is dangerous, especially for the young.” Bernard embraces the need for hard work and raises the profile of his boss’ stations with popular and involving programming—earning him financial success as well.
Portrayed as a hero, Bernard is not without some significant flaws, including a mistress named Tanya (Jessica Obilom).
The roles are meaty and the acting strong, but dialogue sometimes veers into sermon, as characters talk about the importance of duty or pay homage to Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Dubois, Frederick Douglas and others. The repeated stage changes sometimes get in the way of seamless storytelling and extend the time of an already-long play (three hours including a 15-minute intermission).
W.E.B. Dubois created the concept of the talented tenth in a 1903 article in which he described the likelihood of 10 percent of Black men becoming leaders of Black people continuing their education, writing books or becoming activists.
The Talented Tenth was first produced in 1989 and is set in the ‘80s. Although its message is still undeniably timely, the days of small media companies—especially radio stations—getting gobbled up by conglomerates is long past. According to WBUR Boston, of the approximately 11,000 commercial radio stations in the USA, fewer than 180 (under 1%) are owned by African-Americans, almost evenly split between AM and FM.
The Talented Tenth runs through Dec. 10 at the Robey Theatre in LA Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 3:00pm; dark on Thanksgiving. Q&As follow Sunday performances. Tickets are $40 and are available here.