The Defiant Ones: ‘The Word Begins’

Interior of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, home to several RADAR L.A. productions, including 'The Word Begins.' Photo by Walter Ryce.

Words fly, and the audience laughs  — then ducks

A monochromatic white screen acts as a canvas, and stools, plugged-in microphones and not much more are the tools for Steve Connell’s and Sekou Andrews’ two-man assault on racism, politics, fear, religious strife and more. Instead of using paint to illustrate those canvases, they employ words: a Pollock-esque action painting of rants, raves and hard-earned insight, fast and furious, splashy but deliberate.

They begin with a clarion call, a call to prayer: “A poem, once begun, must not be finished. … Get it out, spit it out … I spit for the ghosts that chase after me!” It’s pitched loud and passionate, and you fear they won’t be able to sustain that kind of energy for another hour. Or worse, that they will. Luckily, they downshift throughout, allowing for laughs and reflection, the valleys as well as the peaks.

They move into the present, two men reminiscing about their lost childhood dreams of superhero worship and childhood innocence. They commiserate over pop-culture touchstones whose names they drop to cement their cultural bonds. Stan Lee. Crips, Matthew Shepard. Then, in funny racial amalgamation, the Six Melanin Dollar Man and the Zionic Woman.

The Word Begins is a mostly fluid, sometimes purposely abrupt, series of skits, vignettes, performance pieces, even a minstrel show. Yes, a minstrel show. Which proves that the duo — Connell is white, Andrews, black — are ballsy. And intelligent. And brash. For one skit in which Connell plays an urban comic, he has the audience chant “balls!” in response to his call “lick!”

That worked at the Tuesday night opening for a packed audience. The crowd whooped, laughed, and guffawed in all the right places. They might not have laughed so heartily had they seen either man’s prior work — in particular, Connell’s; it’s similar material that makes The Word Begins seem familiar. They rail on so many issues, leaving none unmolested: Abu Ghraib, fahtwa, Rwanda, crime, poverty, sexism. Maybe they’re ambitious, maybe naive, but they definitely moves the narrative along. You get many moments of melodrama and even an uneasy reliance on the stereotypes they attack, though they sagely linger on a handful of issues. And their moments of big comedy temper the stridency, with truly poetic lines. (“I have just enough energy to drown 30 feet from the shore … you are on your own.”).

It’s a sustained performance of passion that sometimes veers off-course and sometimes trades volume for profundity, and the crowd on opening night ate it up. Was it artistic? At its best, it was. Was it entertaining? When they weren’t straining for depth, yes.

The Word Begins. RADAR L.A. Wed-Sun, June 15-19. 213-237-2800.

Walter Ryce

If you like graphic novels, film, popular uprisings, urban hikes, horseplay, stage plays, John Adams or Philip Glass, city skylines, hip-hop, underground art … then you and Walter Ryce should talk.

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  1. Defiant!