A contemporary family drama set in Queens, “Smell the Power” by Levy Lee Simon, is the current attraction at the Black Spectrum Theatre in Jamaica.
This exploration of the problems — generational, social and political — that continue to affect many African-American families today is serious one moment, tense another, humorous the next, and deserves to be seen.
Written several years ago, the play is receiving its first major New York production under the guiding hand of the theater’s resident director Bette Howard, who has molded a cast of eight into a tight, finely tuned ensemble.
At the heart of the play is Korina Davis (Valerie Donaldson) who, at the age of 70, has seen her four children follow different paths in life on their respective roads to adulthood.
As the play begins, oldest son Kenneth (Jimmy Gary, Jr.) is about to be released from prison, having served 15 years for his involvement in a bank robbery. Middle son Carlton (Sean Turner) has successfully pursued the proverbial American dream, which has come to him complete with a beautiful home, three children, a white wife and a bank account, which, due to circumstances, nearly tears the family apart. Youngest son Jeffrey (Channing Jackson) has been mixing with the wrong people and almost gets the family killed when a certain deal goes awry. Daughter Teresa (Nicole Valentine) is married to a detective (Au Hogan Eugene) who, it would appear, has been doing wrong by his wife.
Following the family’s ups and downs provides plenty of dramatic possibilities for Simon to explore. By play’s end each of the characters has become a living, breathing individual.
Much of the success of the evening (or matinee) is due to the strong commitment of each member of the company.
Donaldson is, at once, the family’s backbone and loving matriarch, steely and vulnerable, and makes believable Korina’s ability to deal with the challenges facing the family.
Gary brings a hulking frame to his complex role of a man who is still angry about his place in society while being able to display a tender side toward a woman who captures his attention.
Jackson, tightly wound and seemingly on the verge of springing at any moment, is, in a word, riveting. With the gait of a street punk, and his pants hanging well below the line of decency, he totally inhabits the role in a performance that is intense from start to finish.
Valentine and Eugene keep their seesaw of a relationship interesting. Turner is credible as the mama’s boy who cares most about his “wife and kids and making some dough.”
The interestingly named Bonnie D gets many of the play’s laughs as a wild family friend, referred to lovingly as Aunt Shirely.
Courtney McKoy completes the cast, bringing to life Jeffery’s no-nonsense girlfriend, China.
This production, like many of Black Spectrum’s, benefits from its realistic approach in both performance and setting, which, in Karl Feaster’s design, features several rooms simultaneously. It also follows tradition in having its actors interact with the audience.
“Smell the Power” will be at the Black Spectrum Theatre — indoors in Roy Wilkins Park — through Nov. 17, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m. Tickets are $30. For more information, call (718) 723-1800.