In a rare groove: Juan Isler and Byron Jennings in Burning Coal Theatre’s HYMN. Photo Credit: Kevin Lord

As Benny, the disaffected half-brother in Burning Coal Theatre Company‘s production of Hymn might put it, if theatre itself is a jigsaw puzzle – a literal “mess of images that don’t make sense until you connect them together to make the big picture,” – it’s one that becomes harder or impossible to solve when some of its most crucial pieces are nowhere to be found.

In the moving oratory of his post-show conversation following Friday night’s performance on January 26, guest director marcus d. harvey (who prefers lower-case typography in professional citations) accurately identified a set long missing in regional, American and world theatre: a dearth of dramas written specifically for Black men.

But as it turns out, there are reasons why award-winning British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, and the rest of the theatre-going world, hadn’t seen a lot of works on stage about the type of familial love she’d witnessed among the Black men in her then-husband’s extended family – an absence so provoking that it drove her to write her two-person 2021 drama, Hymn.

In interviews that year, Chakrabarti noted that when theatre has overfocused on the tropes of trauma, tragedy, and conflict in families of color, something subtle, delicate, and essential has largely gone missing: the deep joy, playfulness, love, sharing of stories, and vulnerability among Black men that the playwright observed for years at family gatherings, in the relationships among her husband at the time’s brothers, uncles, and cousins.

It is entirely a fair criticism. Unfortunately, in one of its primary findings, Hymn sheds inadvertent light onto why it is so. For, despite the best efforts of Chakrabarti, harvey, and long-time Raleigh theatre mainstays Juan Isler and Byron Jennings, when Hymn deliberately tries to chart a different course, we soon learn that doing so is an awful lot tougher than we might at first imagine.

There’s bound to be a sense of anxiety, guarded distance, and no small amount of gingerly tiptoeing when Gil, the youngest son of recently deceased patriarch and businessman Augustus Jones, meets up with the man he’s about to confirm, through DNA testing, is his half-brother: Benny, a taciturn, somewhat rough-around-the-edges sort who grew up several steps lower on the socioeconomic ladder after Jones told his mother to keep herself and her son away from his family. Benny and Gil first met two months earlier, at Jones’s funeral – a day or two after Benny’s mother revealed to him his father’s identity for the first time.

But when those feelings of distance, tentativity, and discomfort persist, not only throughout the half-brothers’ relationship but the rest of Chakrabarti’s script, it’s easy to see that the playwright is actually the one who’s walking on eggshells here.

Why? Drama requires conflict, and indeed, there’s no shortage of potential for conflict in the schisms of class – long a major issue in British culture – and intrafamilial abuse, which ultimately shows up in both Gil’s and Benny’s families. Either alone could easily fund a more conventional play. But Chakrabarti seems to have concluded that the more she revs those dramatic engines, the more her characters are going to be pulled away from what she wants to focus on in Hymn – the relatively quiet, somewhat organic gestation of a friendship between two middle-aged sibling strangers.

So, Hymn’s plot stays conspicuously throttled back. The specter of class, and Benny’s understandable resentment at being ostracized from his father and a family that was raised much better off, unconvincingly evaporates in an early scene. Also unconvincing: a boxing club scene, staged without a fight choreographer, in a too-compressed bonding opportunity for the brothers also early on.

Greek drama is invoked when word is brought of dramatic, but only momentary, developments kept offstage, involving Benny’s unwell mother and his rebellious son.

Byron Jennings and Juan Isler in Burning Coal Theatre’s HYMN. Photo Credit: Kevin Lord

And while a sense of reserve is a part of British culture – the stuff stiff upper lips and such are made of – too much of it here thwarts our efforts to draw near enough to know the psyches being called upon to build an intimate familial relationship.

When that distance is punctuated by sudden and wholly underfunded plot developments, the results feel inauthentic. It’s hard to escape a sense of drastic acceleration when Gil somehow moves from the distrust of a blood test in March to wanting to work with Benny in a family business the following month.

But a notable exception comes at points when Chakrabarti uses music from the 1980s, when Benny and Gil both came of age, as a dramaturgical shortcut to fill in a considerable amount of cultural context – and supply ample comic relief – in a small amount of time.

Twice under harvey’s nimble direction, during a birthday celebration and the strategic deployment of a bespoke suit, Jennings and Isler’s rewarding depictions of Gil and Benny’s aging grooves to Sugarhill Gang, Young MC, and Will Smith convey a rich believability and humanity. In these stage veterans’ able hands, their characters warm to one another and finally drop their ever-present guard.

But when Chakrabarti overuses the strategy, it starts to feel like a vamp for time in an already brief 85-minute show, before devolving to a maudlin crutch, prior to a paint-by-numbers reversal from the beginning in the show’s final scene.

If Gil and Benny’s characters never ultimately feel fully developed, it’s because the playwright rarely allows them to explore the full velocity and range of unchecked, unguarded emotions. Repeatedly, Hymn feels more like Chakrabarti is observing their relationship at a distance, as at those family gatherings she spoke of, instead of ever having internalized them from the inside.

When those pieces go missing in this dramatic jigsaw puzzle, harvey, Isler, and Jennings – noted stage artists all, in their own right – are hard pressed to fill them in. The stories of Black men are desperately needed on the stages of the world: fully voiced, fully heard, and with all the pieces present. Regrettably, that is not the case in this minimal, under-scripted Hymn.

 Hymn continues through Sunday, February 11. For more details on this production, please follow this link.