By Beki Pineda
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF OL’ ALFRED – Written by Jon Ian Sayles; Directed by Hugo Jon Sayles. Produced by the SOURCE Theatre Company (presented at Su Teatro, 721 Santa Fe Drive, Denver) through June 9. Tickets available at 720-375-0115 or thesourcedenver.org.
The SOURCE has turned the small theatre at Su Teatro into a club setting with tables and chairs as a space for cabarets, musical performances, and occasional theatre projects. This current production also saw the introduction of a space behind the stage used to enhance the simple set by projecting appropriate images against the back wall. We saw green fields, fire, American Indians, and other pictures symbolic to the story.
The Old Alfred of the title was the ancestor of the playwright and the director (a son and father duo) and tells their family’s story from slavery forward. And quite a tale it is. Alfred’s mother escaped the plantation and ran away to an Indian reservation where Alfred was born. He never knew his father and was separated from his mother when she was returned to slavery. As Alfred grew up, he began making sails for the trading ships that made their way up and down the coast. Hence, when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed and he became a free man, he created his new name from his trade – Sayles. The new law gave African-Americans certain rights but did not make the fear go away. In the South, a Black man was still held in bondage by custom and history. They could be accused of thievery or other crimes and never given the chance to defend themselves. Alfred lost children and had houses burned to the ground as a result of unjust treatment. The happy times of his life seem few and far between. But he does eventually find a home and, with his wife Mandy, creates the next generation.
Angel Mendez-Soto plays Alfred with a realistic resignation and acceptance of the things that happen in the telling of the story. We first meet Alfred as an older man telling the story of his family to his granddaughter; so he acts out the story as an older man telling the tale of a younger man without trying to become that younger man. His granddaughter, mother, and several other characters are played by Timesha Sumpter whose character changes are accomplished with body language and costume adjustments. Colette Brown plays his faithful wife Amanda who brings him the only happiness he finds when they “jump the broom.”
As this is the second time, SOURCE has staged this script and may choose to do it again in the future, I’m going to offer two suggestions that might make the performance clearer and tighter. An insertion of a time line into the story, the casual mention of a year or an event that would designate a year, would be helpful for the audience to follow the story and place it in an appropriate space in history. The mention of slavery and freedom from slavery gave the audience an indication of the time frame of the beginning of the story, but when did they move? When were the children born? How far into the new century does the story go?
Secondly, it was made clear early in the production that this wasn’t the first time Alfred had relayed the incidents in his life to his grandchild . . . so they could be reasonably told with a little more energy and not so many ponderous pauses. This is a ninety minute story that takes two hours to tell. Speeding up the dialogue and picking up the pace would not hurt the production and would make it more interesting for the audience.
The cast made good use of the simple setting and costumes. The sound track and projections greatly enhanced the production as well. The sentiments and stories told through the script encourage everyone to think about where they have come from and to investigate their own histories as well.
A WOW factor of 7.5!