MIAMI — Nestled inside the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City is the Wendall Narcisse Theatre, a cozy venue that has brought to fruition works of African-American history and community; works by award-winning playwrights that have been performed across the country.
The Wendall Narcisse Theatre is also home to the African-American Performing Arts Community Theatre, Inc. (AAPACT). Currently, audiences can see AAPACT’s latest production Fathers and Other Strangers, by Jeffrey Stetson, through March 18.
AAPACT was founded in 1998 as a second theater company where African-American actors in South Florida could find work. According to one of AAPACT’s founders, Teddy Harrell Jr., the only other company employing a bulk of African-American actors was the M Ensemble.
“The M Ensemble had their pool of actors. So, if you couldn’t get into that pool of actors, you weren’t working,” said Harrell, Fathers’ director. “That’s what made me approach a few actors, directors and writers and say, ‘Let’s start a company’.”
BEGAN WITH ATHOL FUGARD
AAPACT’s first performance in 2001 was South African writer Athol Fugard’s The Island, which was received with great reviews. Since then, AAPACT’s company has performed 17 plays, such as The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years, Sisters, King Hedley II, Riff Raff, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, The Taking of Miss Janie, Camp Logan and most recently, Jelly Belly. AAPACT is now enjoying its 11th season.
“(Fathers is) a poignant piece of underlying racism, even though there’s no villains in this play. There’s what I call misunderstandings, lack of communication, and lack of knowledge,” said Harrell, who lost his father, Teddy Harrell Sr. last March. “It’s easy to say, ‘The white guy’s the villain. He’s racist.’ But, there’s a lot of hurt and pain between the struggle of these characters.”
In Fathers, Dr. Paul Janis (played by Finley Polynice), an African-American psychiatrist, grapples with treating white, affluent patients while silently resenting his late father’s position of never confronting racism. As a result of his resentment and refusal to understand his father not standing up for himself, Paul has a hard time connecting with people — friends, family, and patients.
In order for Paul to see his way to forgiving his father, Stetson allows Paul to treat patients, African-American and white, with father issues:
Mr. Stefano (Rene Granado), a man who almost committed suicide, has to come acknowledge that he just wants to be loved by wife and his children.
Mr. Davis (Clinton Archambault), a wealthy businessman, has always craved his father’s approval and clings to a chance moment when his father didn’t harshly punish him for wrongdoing.
Mr. Nelson (Jon David K.), a principal at a private high school and his son, Edward (Curtis Holland), have a rift in their relationship due to an evening where Edward is racially slighted and feels that his father never stood up for him. In trying to repair their relationship, Mrs. Nelson (Deidre’ Washington) forces both men to have a session with Paul.
Mrs. Nelson represents many women, African-American and white, who find themselves in the middle of the two men they love most in the world. These broken relationships between fathers and sons, whether wealthy or poor, affect the mothers and wives, as well. They cannot choose a side, but they cannot bear to see their men fight, either.
“(Mrs. Nelson) had a very quiet strength about her. I can relate to her, because I remember growing up that my dad and I were not always a happy couple. (Laughs.) There was some fighting there,” said the director whose favorite AAPACT plays are Camp Logan and King Hedley II. “My mom was in between all of that, wrestling with these two tigers. I can imagine what she must have been going through.”
Essentially, Fathers and Other Strangers touches on racism and the relationships men have with their fathers. It also addresses the dichotomy that many men do not show emotion, because they see it as a sign of weakness. In Fathers, the men grappling with broken relationships with their fathers cannot be freed from their hurt until they embrace their emotions.
What Harrell and AAPACT have brought to Liberty City audiences isn’t just a play about fathers, but a play about how the bonds that we form and disintegrate affect the family unit.
It also opens up a dialogue about forgiveness and how to move past the pain, despite racial differences.
That’s a powerful message to squeeze into a two-hour block; especially since Stetson’s original play is much longer than that.
“In terms of our community, (Fathers) is symbolic of what is occurring today,” said Harrell, whose father was always a strong supporter of AAPACT. “There’s a lot of racism still in this country from both sides, African-Americans and whites, and I think this play really set a tone and it really woke up some people.”
Photo: COURTESY OF AAPACT
Tackling Racism: From left, Curtis Holland, Jon Kelly and Deidre' Washington star in Fathers and Other Strangers.