There's a lot bitten off -- and well chewed -- in the New Horizon Theater production of Freeman. Though it definitely has its own distinctive voice, Phillip Hayes Dean's 1973 hit mixes Biblical allegories and '70s pop culture with the British "angry young men" plays of the 1950s and Death of a Salesman's heavy-handed plea for the individual. Throughout, it speaks to the survival strategies of modern African-American men.
Although the play revolves around the symbolically named Freeman, the square peg in society's round hole, he serves mainly as the dysfunctional mirror of his hard-working blue-collar father, Ned, and the kingly Rex, the almost-brother and family "success story." Which brother represents Abel and which Cain, or Esau and Jacob, is just one of the undercurrents swirling in this deceptively straightforward narrative. And although the focus is clearly on African-American men and the raw deal they get in life, the female characters are also finely drawn.
This ambitious New Horizon offering boasts a superb set by Mark Clayton Southers, though the production itself wobbles a bit from scene to scene. Southers, who also directed, covers a lot of territory and enunciates the details, but the pacing is uneven and occasionally plodding. He handles the '70s references well, rarely veering into camp territory. Unfortunately, the day when a man could make a decent living at physical labor is long dead, making Freeman seem almost like a period piece.
The multi-talented cast/crew delivers some solid performances. Though Freeman as a character is a bit of a cipher, Leslie "Ezra" Smith approaches him with fire and determination. Leslie Howard appropriately underplays the much-tested strength and humor of the father and patriarch, and Erick Irvis slickly portrays the modern black urban professional. Richena Brockinson makes an on-target debut as Freeman's extremely pregnant and multi-disappointed wife, while doing triple duty as stage manager and photographer. Cheryl El Walker turns many a mean comedic phrase as Freeman's mother, and like Howard, brings understated strength to the parental role. Another triple threat, she also did the makeup and costume design.
Although Freeman himself hits some extremes -- at 32 years old, he's still embarrassingly naïve about how life works -- the characters are credible, sometimes painfully so. While probing the dynamics of an African-American family, the play hammers on the stress under which men sometimes, tragically, break.
Freeman continues through Sun., Feb. 17. New Horizon Theater at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. 412-421-0773 or firstname.lastname@example.org