LOS ANGELES — Playwright D.G. Watson’s Unbound proves the old cliché “politics makes strange bedfellows.” The two-act play opens with what could be a typical Tinseltown “cute meet”: Under mysterious circumstances an interracial 20-something couple clad only in their undies wakes up in bed next to one another in a posh hotel room where they’ve apparently spent the night. However, Michael (Chris Gardner) and Kate (Laila Ayad) haven’t the slightest idea how they wound up at a glitzy tourist destination, where radical slogans have somehow been spray-painted onto their hotel wall.
Inquiring minds want to know! Michael and Kate try to put the pieces of the puzzle together as to how they met. For the first 15 minutes it seems that Unbound is a sort of romcom. The opening night audience chuckled as Michael and Kate groped their way to some sort of understanding.
Perhaps in the hands of a less talented dramatist, Unbound would have wound up merely being just another romantic comedy. But Watson has something deeper up his sleeve than merely wearing, like Othello, his heart upon it. For just as Shakespeare’s Moor goes on to say, “I am not what I am,” Michael and Kate are not who they appear to be. The gifted Watson has something more profoundly meaningful on his mind as he proceeds to take us on a rollercoaster ride with dizzying hairpin twists and turns.
It turns out that both Michael and Kate are involved in the Occupy movement and have fled the Occupy L.A. encampment in front of City Hall as swarms of LAPD officers raided the protest site in November 2011. But precisely how they ended up two-gether in a touristic holiday getaway remains a mystery, as does exactly what did happen when they hit the sheets.
But the dramatically devious Watson has even more tricks up his theatrical sleeve, for Michael and Kate are no run-of-the-mill Occupiers denouncing the one-percenters in front of the mayor’s office. As the characters reveal, Michael has been instrumental in freeing Ellis Clay (Ellis Williams) who, like Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali and Huey Newton, was a Black militant imprisoned by the system. However, unlike both Ali and Huey, Ellis — who was a card-carrying member of the Black Panther Party, of which Huey was Minister of Defense — languished behind bars for 36 years, mostly in solitary confinement, until Michael and his mother’s campaign liberated him.
Upon being released from the hole, Ellis and Michael tour Occupy “liberated zones” across America in a drive to resurrect the Panthers. In the process, Michael is shooting a documentary about their crusade on his digital camera — the fact that he’s a filmmaker is a crucial plot point.
Now Kate has her own startling back story: Her mother Dana (Gates McFadden) is a U.S. Senator so rabidly rightwing that Kate describes her as making Congresswoman Michele Bachmann look sane in comparison. As the 2012 presidential race heats up, Dana is about to toss her hat into the ring. As a Tea Party candidate slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, Dana is a firebreathing alt-right alternative to the more tepidly conservative Mitt Romney.
But the playwright isn’t content with this bombshell — he has to toss the proverbial kitchen sink into the combustible mix to blow it up: Namely, the role Dana played in busting Ellis and sending him to the big house back in the 1970s. So Kate is driven to defend and prove her radical street cred. The story spirals out of the characters’ control, as Act I ends up being closer to LeRoi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) visceral 1964 drama Dutchman — about race, sex and violence — than some When Harry Met Sally romp.
When the proverbial curtain lifts for the second act, the older generation of extremists enter the stage to clean up the mess created by the young ’uns. Dana’s White House ambitions depend upon a cover-up that would have given Tricky Dick his smile of the day: The Caucasian conservative icon offers an unholy alliance to Ellis, whom she had put behind bars more than a third of a century ago.
Williams invests Ellis with a proud dignity. But battered by a life spent in the slammer and confounded by the brave new world he encounters beyond the prison walls, Ellis’ façade quickly crumbles. However, he does give a fine speech about the accomplishments of the Black Panther Party, highlighted by their free Breakfast for Children Program. In 1969 that program fed 20,000 poor children, prompting J. Edgar Hoover to oink in a confidential memo that it “is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” Although Watson doesn’t turn a blind eye to alleged criminal activities by some Panthers, on the occasion of the party’s 50th anniversary, the playwright serves the United States of Amnesia well by reminding us not only of the Panthers’ militant bravado, but also of their “serve the people” credo.
In addition to ’60s/’70s and (almost) contemporary lefty politics, Unbound depicts partial nudity, sexual violence, explicit language, the role video of an event can play, alcohol and other substances, lynching and more. Some of it is pretty graphic (this show is definitely not for the kiddies), while other aspects may be metaphorical in a magical realist or Buñuelian way (especially the grand finale). Unbound raises some unsettling, perplexing questions:
Was Michael and Kate’s hooking up random, due to a deliberate plan, or, as in Greek tragedies, predestined by the fates? Is there a sexual frisson between those old sworn enemies, Dana and Ellis? Is the relationship between the older Ellis and Michael a commentary on African American father-son interactions? What does it mean to be socially committed individuals, and how are they supposed to treat others?
Combined with wild political insights about the nature of sex, race and power, Watson proves himself a playwright with promise as he plumbs the depths of profound issues while taking us along on a riveting ride with unexpected switchbacks. Perhaps he is on his way to becoming our African American Aeschylus. While his dialogue can be sharp, about 10 minutes could be cut from each act.
Se Oh’s set captures the ambiance of an upscale hotel. Ahmed Best’s fight choreography renders a realistic, gritty experience. In Dalmar Montgomery’s sound design, during the intermission appropriate recorded songs were played, including “Ohio” (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s response to the 1970 shootings of students at Kent State by National Guardsmen, with the haunting refrain “Four dead in Ohio”) and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Although judging by this drama, the revolution will be staged by live theater. Jennifer Chambers’ direction of her ensemble has made her Prometheans Unbound in a thought-provoking world premiere about what actually makes America tick.
IAMA Theatre Company’s production of Unbound plays on Sat. at 3:00 and 8:00 pm and Sun. at 7:00 pm through Nov. 27 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, The Hudson Theatres, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90038. For tickets Call (323) 960- 7784 or see http://www.iamatheatre.com/.