by Melanie N. Lee · August 28, 2015
Brett Davenport and Kwame Opoku-Duku | John Henri Coene
To mash up two well-known sayings: Hurting people hurt people, and absolutely hurting people hurt people absolutely.
According to the playwright’s notes for A Spot on the Wall, a two-act play written and directed by Temar Underwood, our overcrowded American prisons have maximum-security prisoners overflowing into medium-security cells. The set, with its two sparse bedframes and almost nonexistent mattresses, evoke the prison’s bleakness. Aiden, a White man who reads The Man in the Iron Mask aloud and writes macabre poetry, tries to greet his new roommate Ezra, a Black man with a doo-rag on his head, a Bible on his bed, and a huge chip on his shoulder.
“Read silently. This ain’t no mother-f***ing Reading Rainbow!” Ezra proclaims. Aiden replies, “I’m not reading. I’m immersing.” He adds, “I see my salvation in you, and you see your salvation in me… Out there, we’re enemies. In here, they’re the enemy.”
Often speaking in high literature and high philosophy, Aiden teases Ezra over being a stereotypical victim, and says that Ezra will eventually do “whatever” to survive in prison. Aiden also uses a file, not to escape, but to mark on his bed’s legs the days until his lethal injection. Aiden admits to killing “nine beautiful souls”, but this confession doesn’t satisfy Ezra’s questions.
As the days wear on, the two men in too-close quarters share trust and mistrust, friendship and enmity. Aiden is shocked when Ezra uses academic words, but Ezra laments that even if he earned a Ph.D., “All you can see is Doctor N****r anyway.” Both men anticipate the “Prison Fellowship”, a mixer with female inmates and conjugal trailers. Aiden offers his novel to Ezra while Ezra offers his Bible. They steal each other’s letters and notebook. Eventually, each man shares a childhood trauma inflicted by his father, where each boy endured by staring at a spot on the wall. However, death occurs at the prison fair, and violence erupts in the cell. Civilization, Aiden declares, is impossible in a place full of “men who don’t have sh** and don’t mean sh**.” Is salvation possible?
Brett Davenport has a beautifully resonant deep voice, and his cool portrayal of Aiden is intriguing and scary. Kwame Opoku-Duku is very good as Ezra, blending street smarts and book smarts, maintaining faith amid his deep despair. In addition, in flashbacks, each actor brilliantly portrays the other character’s parents and victims. I’d like the director to call forth even more from Opoku-Duku’s Ezra, for a more thorough, down-to-the-bone portrayal, which is present in Opoku-Duku’s other characters.
Underwood’s play confronts the day-to-day racist assaults upon the psyche of the African-American, from accusations of “you don’t tip enough” to being pulled over by cops “for no good reason,” and how such constant humiliations produce hopelessness and self-hatred. While Ezra wants mastery over his own destiny, Aiden wants mastery over other people: to dominate, to be worshipped and feared. The playwright may be commenting upon the White Man’s hubris within a society designed especially for him.
A Spot on the Wall is intense, tender, and violent—a brilliant work with two brilliant performances, and with cutting observations of how individuals and society have inflicted deep wounds within the worst of our walking wounded.