There’s nothing particularly complex about the plot of “BlackTop Sky,” which opened Friday evening at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati. It revolves around the unlikely friendship that blossoms between 18-year-old Ida and a homeless man who takes up residence in the courtyard of the housing project where she lives.
You could look at it as a play about coming of age. But there is so much more going on in Christina Anderson’s script. By the end of the 85-minute play, we’ve been dragged through a dizzying emotional journey, a clash of culture and class and poverty and possibilities. There’s optimism and despair and lots and lots of uncertainty.
Ida loathes the closeness of seven-story tenements where she lives. She can barely see the sky. And the noise is constant. The dull thud of music from passing cars. The cacophony from the hundreds of lives being lived in such close proximity. She resents her disabled mother and her absent father. All she wants is to leave.
She has a boyfriend. Wynn, an auto mechanic, is older than Ida. You get the sense that he may be the only person Ida knows who has a future.
And then there is Klass, the homeless man. He is clearly a damaged person. He surrounds himself with junk he finds on the street; a broken vacuum cleaner, castoff clothes, unwanted kitchenware. He wears a heavy parka despite the summer heat. And, until a confrontation with Ida, he is silent.
Anderson’s script, which races along with the speed of a quick-cutting screenplay, leads us in many different directions, nearly all of them unsettling. The story may end, but nothing is concluded for these characters. They’re too young for that. This is just one small chapter at the very beginning of their adult lives.
Somehow, director Kimberly Faith Hickman brings all of this under control. Rather than give in to the temptation to hurtle through the play, she slows things down. There are long stretches where there is no dialogue at all, where characters stop and look and listen. And then they stop some more. Hickman understands that much of the play’s forward progress is powered by what is not spoken.
Andrew J. Hungerford’s set couldn’t be more simple. Two back-to-back park benches underneath an undulating canopy of fabric. Like the script, his design brings a beauty to what we might ordinarily walk past. Doug Borntrager’s soundscape is quite brilliant, a subtle and near-constant wash of urban sounds that never intrude but are impossible to escape. And the fight sequences, choreographed by John Baca, are some of the most savage and realistic I’ve ever seen on the stage.
Then there is Hickman’s wonderful – and mostly local – cast. Aziza Macklin (Ida) is a former intern at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. Kameron Richardson (Klass) is a senior musical theater major at the College-Conservatory of Music. And Landon E. Horton (Wynn) is a senior playwriting major at Northern Kentucky University.
Macklin captures the anxiety and confusion of being 18, of being impetuous and knowing it all, but feeling lost at the same time. Ida isn’t sure how she’s going to escape the world she finds so stifling. But Macklin captures a resolve that gives us hope she may make it.
Richardson’s Klass is mysterious. But it’s the kind of mystery that most of us would try to avoid. He’s brooding and tortured, and we want to believe he’s not violent. He moments of madness are balance by moments of clear-eyed lucidity, moments where we have hope he may regain control of his life.
On the written page, Wynn seems domineering, a guy who confuses power over Ida with love for her. But Horton finds a far more complex character in the lines, giving us a more nuanced portrayal, mixing Wynn’s frustration with a genuine caring for Ida.
“BlackTop Sky” leaves us wanting a little more, which is probably a good thing. Too often, plays ramble on long after the story is done. It would be easy to write this off as being a slice of urban life. You know – someone else’s life. But this isn’t just a city story. It’s about maturing, as well, about finding ways to take responsibility for our own lives, about the compromises we are all forced to make, comfortable or not.