A voice speaks as the lights go down at SpeakEasy Stage Company. It tells the audience, “turn off y’all’s cell phones,” in a New York accent almost thick enough to be the real deal. It continues on as people scramble into their pockets and bags, so as not to be scolded by the gruff Brooklyn-style invisible man. And so begins Between Riverside and Crazy, opening up inside the last rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive, owned by former NYPD officer, Pops.
Pops lives here with his son Junior, who recently got out of prison; Junior’s girlfriend Lulu; and Junior’s friend Oswaldo, who is working on his sobriety. From the opening scene—Pops and Oswaldo sitting at the table, eating Ring Dings, and yelling at each other—the back-and-forth dynamic between Pops and everyone who lives in his house is clear. After groaning at Oswaldo and Lulu to do things around the house, Pops asks why Lulu calls him Dad if he isn’t really her dad.
“It’s like, you know, she very fond of you,” Oswaldo explains. “Like a term of respect. You ain’t my dad either, but I still call you Dad.”
Pops isn’t a lot of the things that you might associate with a parent. From the beginning, he curses every other word, is constantly annoyed and demanding, and is hostile when he doesn’t get his way. He does, however, have a tremendous amount of care for the people who depend on him.
Pops is like a father not only to Junior, Oswaldo, and Lulu, but also his former partner from the NYPD, Audrey. When Pops invites her over, she brings her fiance, Lt. Caro. Both act cordially toward Pops at first, making jokes and thanking him for his hospitality, but the contrast between Oswaldo’s genuine respect and their words loosely shadowing their ulterior motives can’t be missed. Pops has been off the job for eight years, ever since he was shot by a white officer in a bar. He refuses to accept the settlement that’s been offered to him, despite Audrey and Caro’s pleading.
Caro plays the part of a witty white man who believes that what he thinks is always best, even when it wouldn’t affect him, adversely or otherwise. Caro tells Pops that he has to drop his civil suit and take the settlement, because it’s an election year and there’s already been trouble with a more recent shooting. To Caro’s disdain, Pops doesn’t take to the notion that he should forget his career-ending injury in order to save face for the mayor.
“Yeah, I read about that one,” Guirgis said of the most recent shooting. “Seems the department hasn’t gotten any better at not shooting at innocent Black men.”
When Junior says something during an argument that challenges Pops’ achievements as a cop, Caro steps in to remind this young black man that he needs to remember that it was hard for Pops to be a black cop back in the day.
When Pops accuses Caro of thinking he can trick him into signing the settlement, Caro lashes back with “not everything is about being black.”
Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright of Between Riverside and Crazy, found inspiration for the show from his own home on Riverside Drive, where he was threatened with eviction after his father died. Pops’ shooting was based on a similar incident in 1994, when an undercover black officer was shot by a white cop. Guirgis takes his ideas and writes complex characters, because good or bad, no one is simple. In an interview with Edge Boston, Guirgis spoke on the way he looked at the issue of racism, and how that should intersect with theater.
“There’s nothing interesting about writing a play [that has the simple message] ‘Racism is bad,’” Guirgis said to Edge. “It has to be complicated, because life is complicated.”
Nobody that occupies the apartment on Riverside Drive is one dimensional. Even when one of them slips and shows their flawed humanity—when Oswaldo relapses, when Junior fights with Pops, when Lulu doesn’t know what choice to make—you want the best for them. That all of these people are good, but do bad, is not original, but insightful nonetheless.
Featured Images Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios