If you thought 4th Wall Theatre Company's 2018 production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A'Train was top-level theater (as we at the Houston Press did) then you're probably not going to want to miss the same playwright's 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy.
Opening at Studio 101 in Spring Street Studios, the two-act play boasts an ensemble cast, led by veteran Houston actor Byron Jacquet (Ensemble Theatre: Women in the Pitt, Two Old Gus Just Sitting Around Talking, The Waiting Room.)
Jacquet plays Walter "Pops" Washington, a widowed, retired New York City police officer who has been in an eight-year battle with the department after being accidentally shot by a fellow officer. He lives in a rent-controlled apartment with his son, who has just been released from jail.
He read the script and says he was intrigued by "a complex and juicy role."
"I'm a line actor. I love lines. So when I saw those lines I said 'Yeah, this is me.'"
The play focuses on Walter "Pops" Washington's life, Jacquet says. "The things he's gone through. being an ex-cop, being a black cop so you've got the black/white thing going on. You have a rebellious son who's been through the legal system many, many times on the criminal end of it. So you're taking about the son of a cop. Now an ex-cop. He's a 30-year-cop, a war veteran and a senior citizen and he stands strong on all that.
"All the other characters are coming at him for some reason. Everybody has a reason to deal with Pops. They are all eventually very significant to Pops. There's a dog who's very significant to Pops (although we never see it)."
Director Bill Pruitt (an Emmy Award winning writer, producer for The Amazing Race among his other film and TV work ) was ready to get back to theater after a 25-year break when 4th Wall co-artistic director and longtime friend Kim Tobin-Lehl (he directed her in a Sam Shepard play in New York several years ago) contacted him and invited him to come direct. "It was Kim reaching out of the blue. She just caught me at a really opportune time, not only was I in-between jobs but in my life I've done some things I wanted to do and getting back to the theater was like a siren call to me. To develop a side of me that I thought I'd neglected. So it feels really good. "
Pruitt says he relates to a lot of the themes in the play. "Fatherhood, shame, redemption, justice, law and order, the legal system in New York which was my home for ten years. All of those qualities in Guirgis's play appeal to me beyond just the music of the writing. It was like he tapped into part of me that really needed to be examined particularly in regards to my sons and what I'm trying to teach them."
Both Jacquet and Pruitt think that what Guirgis did in this play is remarkable. "Before Black Lives Matter, before Trump became President, before [Rudy] Giuliani spun up and into this international realm, this guy had the foresight to address all of this, prophetically almost," Pruitt says.
"Pops' story emerges out of an alleged racial conflict, inside the police department that we're living with today five years later," Pruitt says. "It touches on themes we're living with today more acutely than when the play was written." It also, both men say, includes moments of unexpected humor.
Other cast members include Philip Lehl, Tobin-Lehl, Juan Sebastian Cruz, Joe Palmore, Briana Resa and Pamela Vogel.
Even if audience members don't see themselves in this play, they will see someone they know or have known, Jacquet says. "A lot of the things in the play affected me on a personal level. As a black man I saw a lot of that. I've experienced some of it. Those are the things as an actor you can take to the stage. As a father dealing with a child, a lot of the things that happen in the play I've actually experienced with my own."
Asked who he thought the play will appeal to, Pruitt responds: "It's funny because there's a very pious character, outwardly and she's called simply The Church Lady," Pruitt says. "She's come with a certain agenda. Even the most pious, Bible-thumping, religious person will find meaning and understanding in her arc. "
There is language, implied violence and sexuality so leave the young kids at home. That said, Pruitt agrees with Jacquet that this play should appeal to a wide-ranging audience. "It has a touchpoint for everyone looking to improve their lives or understand their lives better."
The play is a two-act with intermission and a running time of two hours, Pruitt says. "It's like a bullet from a gun; it just goes."
Performances run from March 12 (preview night) through April 4 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-786-1849 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com $17-$53.
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