Billed as a comedy, James Anthony Tyler’s ARTNEY JACKSON, in its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is, on the surface, a heartwarming, unpretentious tale about how ordinary working people deal with what life throws at them. But disarmingly, and without a trace of cynicism, it turns out to be a quiet, yet powerful, antidote to The Age of Trump.
The play covers a workweek in the life of Artney Jackson, in the back office of a cable company in Las Vegas. The fixed setting is the company’s lunch room. (Shout out to Arnulfo Maldonado for its crisp, commercial design.) Artney has worked on the call desk of retention sales for 25 years, which is about the same time he’s been a single parent for his schizophrenic son, Artney Jr., who works for the company too. Artney Jr.’s announcement that he's moving out from dad's place comes at a bad time: Artney’s taken a big step and applied for a management job. What happens to Artney and his son, and how three co-workers and Artney’s boss are involved plays out in a tightly crafted, intermissionless, five scene (for Monday through Friday), 90 minutes that is perfectly character-driven.
Have I mentioned that playwright Tyler and all his characters are African-American? I wouldn’t because Tyler’s tale has universal truth, but it also addresses truths unique to the African American experience. In contrast to the hard-edged dramatic tack on INTER-racial (emphasis added) working-class Americans that dramatist Lynn Nottage took in her Pulitzer play SWEAT, Tyler’s route is comedy. Tyler’s ethnic dialogue is funny and quick, but Tyler doesn’t shy away from INTRA-racial working class tension. Is the boss Black enough? (She’s married to a white guy, but some coworker’s attitude shifts when it’s learned he’s Mexican.) Tyler also keenly observes class, foreign-origin and educational biases among Blacks. His view is so socially astute, he incorporates subplots on dreamers and, without sermonizing, health insurance.
All of which might make ARTNEY JOHNSON sound more serious than how thoroughly entertaining it is. The cast is superb, lead by the marvelous Ray Anthony Thomas (JITNEY and BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY) in the title role. Single-named actor Portia is wonderful as Artney’s co-worker confidant, sassy and street-smart. She brings it home in a moving monologue late in the play about making ends meet. Alfie Fuller navigates a very tricky role as Artney's female boss. (Tyler doesn’t ignore gender bias, too). Director Laura Savia, cleverly paces the week’s events using a nifty prop device in scene shifts. The inter-scene soundtrack appropriately is Artney’s music from his younger days, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind & Fire and great 70s R&B.
In ARTNEY JACKSON, Tyler creates a world where dreams and the workaday co-exist. Tyler’s Artney is the Everyman who combines modesty and courage. Whether Artney gets his better job or not seems a small issue. His humanity is huge.
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