Soul Comes From Struggle
“Have you ever heard / of an American prisoner / Hollerin’ out / for peace…”
In the opening lines of TOAST, Hard Rock (F. Hill Harper), one of the folklore heroes from Attica Prison’s 1971 riots, unloads a brilliant block of text encapsulating all of the many manifestations of love, pain, intimacy, and frustration to follow.
Pervaded by a string of urgent charges for peace — a call to action for solidarity in liberating the minds, bodies and souls of Attica’s incarcerated population — Hard Rock concludes by saying, “Follow me to the (prison) yard / And I will show you where / there are Stars / there are Stripes / On the wrong side of freedom.”
Written by spoken word artist and Tony Award-winner Lemon Andersen and directed by Elise Thoron, TOAST is undoubtedly one of the most necessary, alive, and life-affirming pieces of theatre to grace the stage this season. TOAST simultaneously reads as a larger-than-life epic, unearthed from deep within the folds of time — and a contemporary epic chronicling the life of characters one might run into on the subway platform today.
The dignity and dexterity with which Andersen paints magnificently complex portraits of patriarchy and masculinity, race, sexuality, passing privilege and coalition building are astounding. Typified by moments where Jesse James (Armando Riesco), a white-passing Puerto Rican character is told, “Your people ain’t no thing but a paper bag away from a tall branch,” and Hard Rock’s assertion that “Soul comes from struggle…You don’t have to be black to have soul,” the production speaks truth-to-power, operating on numerous levels.
According to a recent report published by the NAACP, between 1980 and 2008, “the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.” To contextualize this statistic, the United States — a country containing 5% of the world’s population — boasts 25% of the world’s prisoners (NAACP). As the Prison-Industrial Complex continues burgeoning around us, TOAST challenges ways in which the narratives and inner-lives of incarcerated people are silenced. Through the lens of Attica Prison’s 1971 riots, the inner-lives of prisoners are decorously illuminated. An extraordinary coalescing of talents, including Alexis Distler’s non-literal and transformative scenic design, Jen Schriever’s sublime lighting design, and Dede Ayite and Rob Kaplowitz’s respective subtle costume and sound design, breathe life into a story I’ve never seen on stage before.
In addition to Harper and Riesco, TOAST’s cast features an electrifying ensemble: Phillip James Brannon (Annabelle Jones), Dan Butler (Sheriff Jody), Teddy Cañez (G.I. Joe), Keith David (Dolomite), John Earl Jelks (Stackolee), and Jonathan Peck (Hobo Ben). Making full use of Andersen’s language, which possesses a natural honey and unyielding lyricism, the actors create a kind of music that leaves you breathless — a music capable even of resuscitating black and brown communities across the country.
A Public Lab production, TOAST’s run is short — too short — so be on the lookout for future iterations of Lemon Andersen and Elise Thoron’s sensational new work.