McCarter Theatre Presents “How to Raise a Freeman” Online; Zakiyyah Alexander’s Play Opens Bard at the Gate’s New Season
“HOW TO RAISE A FREEMAN”: McCarter Theatre and Bard at the Gate are presenting a prerecorded video of Zakiyyah Alexander’s “How to Raise a Freeman.” Directed by Reginald L. Douglas, the video is available via McCarter’s website. Above: Keith (Malcolm Barrett, top), Dean (Jamie Lincoln Smith, middle left) and Greg (Francois Battiste, middle right) teach Marcus (Aric Floyd, bottom) some lessons he will not learn in school. (Digital image courtesy of ViDCo)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter is presenting How to Raise a Freeman online as of November 3. The theater’s website describes Zakiyyah Alexander’s play as a “dark comedy that asks how a middle-class, African American family can keep their son alive in a world where every 28 hours a Black man is killed by law enforcement.”
The pre-filmed production is a collaboration between McCarter and Bard at the Gate. Founded by Paula Vogel, Bard at the Gate is “designed to become a widely accessible platform for powerful, overlooked plays by BIPOC, women, LGBTQ, and disabled artists,” according to the series’ website.
How to Raise a Freeman opens Bard at the Gate’s second season. The curators are Vogel; McCarter’s Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson; and the Bard at the Gate Advisory Council. Princeton Public Library is hosting a Bard at the Gate Watch Party Series, the first installment of which took place on November 4.
Alexander is an award-winning writer whose other works include the plays 10 Things to Do Before I Die, The Etymology of Bird, and the musical Girl Shakes Loose. Her television credits include 24: Legacy, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hunters. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Alexander is co-founder of the Killroys, an organization that focuses on parity in American theater.
Previously How to Raise a Freeman has had workshop presentations at venues such as Playwrights Horizons and Center Theater Group. In 2017 it was performed at Los Angeles’ Ammunition Theatre. But during a live, online discussion, Alexander describes the experience with McCarter and Bard at the Gate as “probably the longest that I’ve spent with actors working on it, since I wrote it.”
The conversation took place on November 3, and it can be viewed on the McCarter website (mccarter.org). Moderated by Watson, the panel included Alexander and director Reginald L. Douglas, as well as Luis Alfaro, a playwright.
In How to Raise a Freeman Denise, a realtor (played by Michelle Wilson) and Keith, a businessman (Malcolm Barrett) are concerned about how best to prepare their son, Marcus, for the future. (Marcus is played by Aric Floyd, who previously performed the role in the Ammunition Theatre production.)
Alexander wanted to tell a “middle-class Black story … where there’s enough food on the table, where everybody’s loved.” She adds that she wanted to portray a family dynamic in which a “grandmother’s not part of the play.”
McCarter’s website describes How to Raise a Freeman as a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Alexander’s remark about a grandmother character could be interpreted as part of that response. Hansberry’s 1959 drama portrays a family dynamic in which a grandmother is the matriarch.
A real estate purchase is important to the plot of both plays, but Alexander diverges from Hansberry’s resolution of that arc. Alexander explains that she wants to explore “What happens when the setup that we … have seen before gets turned on its head.”
We see Marcus enjoying his favorite pastime — video games — through which he has met an online friend, Travis (Ben Horwitz). Keith enters and insists on watching the news, and the family sees a report about a young African American who has been shot by police.
Marcus is an excellent student at the private school he attends, but Keith worries that academic success is not enough to prepare Marcus to survive a culture in which racial profiling is rampant. After Denise asks Marcus about his coursework and makes him practice diction, Keith drills him on how to respond if confronted by a suspicious officer.
“Sometimes we hear about police brutality as someone else’s story,” Alexander observes. “I thought, ‘This is the world that we’re in. How do I communicate this in a way that people care about, and see it as less of a political conversation?’”
Denise is helping a client, Joan (Veanne Cox), close a deal on a property. Complications arise when the current owner — who is represented by another realtor, Neil (Francois Battiste) — places a special condition on the sale. At a meeting, Denise awkwardly tries to steer Joan away from making any damaging comments.
Discussing the comedic elements in the play, Alexander remarks, “I’m a satirist, and my goal is to make you laugh … and feel like this is one type of story, so that if I punch you in the stomach, you don’t see it coming!”
She adds, “The only way that I personally experience an emotion for any story is if I didn’t get to solve the puzzle beforehand.”
Keith plays poker with his brother, Dean (Jamie Lincoln Smith), and friend, Greg (Battiste), who share Keith’s concern that Marcus is insufficiently disturbed about police brutality. The three older men are determined to impress on Marcus the dangers he might face in a world outside of school and video games.
Watson asks Douglas — who says that his previous experience has been exclusively as a stage director — about the process of directing the play for an online production rather than onstage, He responds that during the pandemic he has had to try “playing in different mediums, and finding the similarities, the synergies — but also embracing the wild differences.”
In addition to the actors, and Alexander’s script — which Douglas describes as “beautiful” — the director appreciates the production design possibilities afforded by ViDCo, which is responsible for editing and video. Visual effects include juxtaposing the cast against the flickering of a television.
But Douglas asserts that the production “at the core, was a staged reading of a play.” He adds, “The great lesson of this year has been try and embrace the new, but also remain dedicated to the thing that hasn’t changed, which is the power of story to enlighten and entertain an audience.”
Having watched the production in the privacy of his apartment, Alfaro considers his reactions to the play, and observes a possible difference in the way audiences might respond to a stage performance versus a video production. “It really tore me open,” he reveals, adding that had he seen the play in the theater, he might have been “stoic” due to unwillingness to share his emotional response. Alfaro remarks that theater is “dangerous — and it should be!”
Alexander reflects that she wrote How to Raise a Freeman “five or six years ago, and I thought, ‘I wonder if this will not be relevant soon.’ I think the thing that has been possibly the most horrifying is that it seems like it will always work.”
She adds that because of the subject matter, “I would love for it to be a dated play.”
How to Raise a Freeman is available to view online “until further notice.” For tickets, more information, or to watch the post-show discussion, visit mccarter.org/tickets-events/bard-at-the-gate/How-to-Raise-a-Freeman. The Princeton Public Library’s next Bard at the Gate Watch Party will take place on December 2.