Encore Michigan

‘The R and J Project’ is a play of the heart

Review February 18, 2023 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI–We don’t always read the Director’s letter in a theatre program. But read Craig Ester’s note, and his The R and J Project, now presented by Break The Chain Theatre Company through Feb 26 will make much more sense. The play is presented at The Matrix Theatre in Detroit.

“The joy of theatre for me is that it’s a place where we are free to be ourselves in imagined circumstances,” Ester writes.

He has written and directed this play as a love letter to his teachers and fellow artists who he credits with opening his soul as a person.

R and J refers to Romeo and Juliet. The play is being put on in a church basement venue, led by Alex (Laketa M. Caston), a Mother Earth kind of character trying to organize a group of young people to perform the Shakespeare classic.

Ester captures almost perfectly the cadence of actions, reactions and ups and downs of a rehearsal cycle where young actors are exploring themselves, their relationships with one another, with their parents, in their adolescent age of discovery, disappointments and breakthroughs.

Chris’s (Jalen Wilson-Nelem) parents are getting divorced, fracturing his understanding of love and commitment. He translates that into a lack of commitment to Chyna (Faith Berry) with whom he has been going out and having late night phone calls. There is a rivalty, fueled by jealousy over a girl, between Chris and Tyler (Cassius Merriweather). Tyler feels a bit like an outsider and channels his frustration into moments of aggression. Lena (Al Duffy) is a non-binary kid, assigned female at birth, they plan on transitioning, something their church-going Mom who wants to dress Lena in dresses.

All these kids find a path for themselves to navigate through the ensemble work they are doing in theatre.

That Ester chose Romeo & Juliet is an intentional, I am guessing, plot device: a story about two teenagers who kill themselves.

There is no greater tragedy I can think of like teen suicide, unless it is when young people are gunned down in their schools by psychopaths who are allowed to buy assault weapons at the corner store, or just take them from their gun-fetish family members protected by gun-fetish lawmakers.

Even Alex, the leader of the troupe, seems to find herself in theatre and goes through her own process of deciding he wants to become a teacher.

We are operating in a society where education policy makers are obsessed with math and science scores, and the fact that the U.S. trail rival countries/economies in these two areas. It galls policymakers, and many a parent, that the U.S. trails Japan, China, India and other countries in math and science.  And when budgets are reviewed, it is art, music and theatre programs that get cut in order to better fund the other courses with no consideration to how art, music and theatre help feed mental health in ways that math classes simply do not.

Ester, who directed the piece, does a lovely job of alternating between scenes of the play with scenes of real life conversations among his characters. We see the actors, and we see the people they are and the struggles they are engaged in. And we see the characters getting stronger with every line of iambic pentameter they deliver in the play.

Craig Ester has a big heart, I think, and that heart comes across in his writing, direction and casting. Break The Chain is a new company, and its is off to a very promising start. I can think of no higher praise than to say: I am glad I saw this play. You will be too.

Week of 3/20/2023

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