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The Book of Ezra at Pittsburgh Playwrights

It's not just a dynamic performance; it's also a stage memoir fraught with vulnerability.

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Leslie "Ezra" Smith performs in Book of Ezra
  • Photo courtesy of Tene Croom
  • Leslie "Ezra" Smith performs in Book of Ezra.

If you experience Book of Ezra moment to moment, it might seem like an unmysterious show — but considered in its entirety, the writing is more enigmatic. Written and performed by Leslie "Ezra" Smith, this compelling new solo work opens Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre's 12th season.

Performance poet and actor Smith (Ezra is his stage name) reveals that the show — composed primarily of autobiographical anecdotes — was created for his teenage son. Smith had a distant relationship with his father, and he's wary of replicating that estrangement.

Fatherly anxiety is echoed by the incorporation of "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," by hip-hop duo Pete Rock and CL Smooth. The script even borrows a few lines from the song: "Took me from a boy to a man / So I always had a father / When my biological didn't bother."

In a reflexive and subtle turn, Ezra explains that he often felt hip hop filled the void his father left. He uses hip hop to transition into another theme: blackness in America. "Will my son be the next Trayvon Martin?" he wonders. "The next Michael Brown?" The litany of racial violence could go on, but it doesn't need to. There are more than enough examples from every generation, and Smith simply wants to remind us how little has changed.

The acting is alternately understated and amplified, but the emotional content of the character is never unclear. Smith recounts the space shuttle Challenger's explosion with unselfconscious tears; getting a cute girl's phone number elicits a triumphant dance. Director Mark Clayton Southers' blocking and pacing both underscore the tone.

Throughout, Smith breaks out short slam poems (practicing for a competition, he claims). These interjections might be jarring if they weren't so rhythmic and kinetic. Most importantly, they're reminders that Book of Ezra is not one thing. It's not just a dynamic performance. It's also a stage memoir fraught with vulnerability. And it's a letter from father to son about growing up black in America. I can't claim to synopsize it completely — and Ezra has the faith not to answer every question Ezra asks.

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