Passing Ceremonies

Playwright Steve Willis has gotten some of the harder things right in his promising new play Passing Ceremonies, including sharp characterization and coherent supernatural rules for this imagined meeting in the afterlife between Harlem Renaissance artist Richard Bruce Nugent and late-20th-century poet and black gay activist Essex Hemphill. But this 70-minute work is at a crossroads: Willis either needs to flesh it out into a full-length play or trim it to a potent one-act.

The setting is a benign version of purgatory, situated beside a beautiful body of water over which the sun sets gorgeously. Nugent has been there for eight years, much longer than most, mysteriously refusing to pass over to the other side of the water and enter paradise. Hemphill arrives on a day late in 1995. He has just succumbed to complications related to AIDS, leaving his nonfiction book about older black gay men, The Evidence of Being, unfinished. He intends to complete it in purgatory, and he seeks Nugent out for an interview. The bemused Nugent initially resists but suddenly changes his mind. The play then becomes something of a debate between the two men on the nature and purpose of art and whether or not political activism is appropriate in an artist. A third character, Rafael, who nursed Nugent during his final illness, serves as a useful diversion from that debate and stands in for the average guy that both artists wanted to reach.

Willis has an acute ear for dialogue, displaying it to best effect in his rich portrait of Nugent, brought to vibrant life in Bryan Webster's glistening performance. Webster mixes humor, intelligence, perception, and grace to limn a man who was never as famous as his friends Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, apparently because he refused to do anything as an artist that he didn't want to do even as he pursued his prose, poetry, and painting with a single-minded determination that often kept him penniless. The stolid, earthy Hemphill is a good dramatic foil for the aristocratic Nugent, but Willis is less successful with him, possibly because he has the character quote from his own work far too often. Fulton Hodges is good at portraying Hemphill's truculence and determination but less successful with his anger, which we are told repeatedly is Hemphill's hallmark. Andrew Horton holds his own as Rafael, giving the likable young man weight and a wisdom beyond his years.

Veteran director Sue Lawless' nimble staging disguises the fundamentally static nature of the situation and keeps character front and center, but Willis needs to help her more. He clearly wants to introduce us to the work of both men by letting them quote themselves, but it's getting in the way of his story. He needs to focus on what each man wants, from each other and from death, and let that dictate his structure. Only Willis, of course, can (or should) decide what play he wants to write. Nevertheless, I would suggest writing a draft in which he deliberately restrains himself from quoting either author's work. That could teach him a lot about where he needs to go.

Presented by Juneteenth Legacy Theatre and Sugar Valley Theatricals as part of the 2009 Fresh Fruit Festival at the Hudson Guild Theater, 441 W. 26th St., NYC. July 2023. Mon. and Tue., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Thu., 6:30 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or