You never see a real basketball in the fast-paced moving “Separate and Equal” that takes place on a mini basketball court set up in the intimate theater. The ball being flipped about is imaginary, except when we see the results of the shots into or missing the hoops projected on screens on each side of the court. We in the audience sit court-side practically touching the sweating competing players, black and white, all choreographed in dynamic motion with imaginary dribbling and hand-clap sound effects. One might say that stars of the production, in addition to the excellent actors, are choreographer Lawrence M. Jackson and writer-director Seth Panitch.
Set in segregated Alabama in the 1950s, “Separate and Equal” is a blast reminding us of what life was like there and then for African-Americans facing persistent discrimination, as well as for whites doing the discriminating. The play also zeroes in on the possibilities for black-white interaction if only mutual understanding could break through the ugliness. But don’t expect this play to end happily.
The play was produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with th Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and Birmingham Metro NAACP. The searing drama is built around black youths using a basketball court that was forbidden to them at peril of their arrest and worse by the local police. When white youths encounter African-Americans on the court, there is rage, and the ensuing hubbub results in their playing each other amid racist slurs and tensions. At one ultimate sequence they temporarily mingle symbolically on opposing sides. Always there lurks the danger of black guys stepping out of their segregated perimeters.
The personal lives of the youths and related or close adults are intertwined with the action, which expands the drama and provides insight into backgrounds and crises. But the genius of the writing and direction is using the court symbolically as a civil rights battleground.
This is very much an ensemble effort, with a large cast that includes—all deserve recognition—Adrian Baidoo, James Holloway, Edwin Brown III, Will Badgett, Ted Barton, Jeremy Cox, Ross Birdsong, Steven Bond Jr, Dylan Guy Davis, Pamela Afesi and Barbara Wengero .
“Separate and Equal” reminds us of how far we have come and how far we haven’t, and certainly of the unscrupulous efforts to exploit racial bias by a certain U.S. president. But within and despite all that happens on this basketball court lurks a glimmer of hope. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 22-279-4200. Reviewed September 10, 2018.