Karma, a “dirty little hood rat” of 17, is looking for her missing former foster brother Terrell, though she didn’t know him long and he didn’t like her much. He was, however, all she had. The first place she looks is the funeral parlor of Madam Rose Profit, 65, who insists her last name is pronounced Pro-fee, but she indeed profits from the tragedies in her community.
The two women, both portrayed by extraordinary actresses — Kara Young as Karma, Lynda Gravátt as Madam Profit — more or less compete to dominate the play by Jonathan Payne, who is making an arresting New York debut as a professional playwright.
The play’s title is taken from a section of Walt Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” in which the poet talks about a slave at auction. In “The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d,” Payne, who works as a social worker, tries to capture the feeling of frustration and hopelessness of the slave’s descendants in a fictional (but familiar!) neighborhood called The Oblong. It is a place “that doesn’t know progress” and is “isolated by poverty,” as we’re told from the get-go by the eight-member cast performing as a kind of Greek chorus in a prologue.
Payne divides his story into two somewhat intertwining parts – the detective story that centers on Karma, and the satirical hustle by Madam Profit.
Having no luck at the funeral parlor, Karma follows the leads, like any good investigator, and visits:
Terrell’s old teacher (Kenneth Tigar),
his foster brother (Donnell E. Smith) and foster mother (Deonna Bouye),
his ex-girlfriend (Bouye again),
a Fagan-like street hustler who takes in boys to break-dance and beg on the streets (Keith Randolph Smith),
an old friend who works in a fast food restaurant and sleeps there too (James Udom)
and two gang-bangers named Death and Youth (Udom and Smith.)
These scenes present a picture of individual and systemic neglect and indifference, although most of these characters are at least somewhat well-meaning. The white teacher, for example, tells Karma that he has worked in the school for 40 years, staying there when all the other white people left, personally doing repairs and cleanups that are not in the school budget; his boasts are undercut by his inability to remember Terrell’s name, or even Karma’s, though she’s standing right in front of him and keeps on correcting him.
There is no such nuance, though, in the playwright’s depiction of the villainous Madam Profit, who is shown exploiting three women (all portrayed to stunning effect by Toni Ann Denoble), including the mother of a murdered 14-year-old son and an addict who wants to commit suicide and is asking Madam to promise to cremate her.
In a bit of meta theatrics, Madam Profit is literally competing with Karma to be the main focus of the play – just one of the many gimmicks that the playwright uses to liven up the play. At another point, a policeman (Kenneth Tigar) stops in mid-sentence, with Karma still with her arms in the air in the gesture of surrender, to assume the role of the actor portraying the policeman and complain about the part he’s been given (“I played Hamlet! Vanya!…Characters of substance.”) This is funny, but unnecessary. The characters of Karma and those she seeks out are engaging enough delivered straight. To quote Whitman, they contain multitudes.
The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d
Playwrights Realm at Duke on 42nd Street
Written by Jonathan Payne; Directed by Awoye Timpo
Set Design Kimie Nishikawa | Lighting Design Stacey Derosier | Sound Design Luqman Brown
Costume Design Andrea Hood | Prop Design Alexander Wylie
Cast: Deonna Bouye, Toni Ann DeNoble, Lynda Gravátt, Donnell E Smith, Keith Randolph Smith, Kenneth Tigar, James Udom and Kara Young
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $52 to $67
Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d is scheduled to run through October 6