Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s new play Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine has little room for nuance and less for pulled punches. It is instead a bold polemic critiquing American race relations in harsh and unrelenting terms. Now receiving a world premiere at Red Bank’s Two River Theater under the direction of its playwright, Your Blues finds its fuel in all the black anger, frustration, and cultural pride that ubiquitously simmers beneath the surface of polite race relations. Santiago-Hudson turns that simmer up to a boil, and the result is a powerful and perpetually timely examination of black pain and white blindness to the long history of racial tension.
The play opens in the upscale apartment of white writer and social critic Judith (Merritt Janson) where she hosts black community activist Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden). Judith’s apartment bears the decorative evidence of her fascination with black culture, and we quickly learn that this fascination extends to Zeke’s life story, which she seeks for a writing project. Zeke overcomes his reluctance and agrees to join Judith at a dinner party the following evening. There, fireworks will fly. Zeke’s growing discontent with being an object of study is exacerbated by Randall (Andrew Hovelson), Judith’s white boyfriend who is sophomorically blind to the complexity of black anger and white culpability for racial tension, and Janeece (Roslyn Ruff), a black woman with little empathy for her community’s struggles. Like in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning Disgraced, this is a dinner party that is as combustible as it is racially diverse. Before the evening is out, bitterness will fly, true selves will be revealed, and old wounds will open anew.
Santiago-Hudson was a close friend of August Wilson, and remains one of that playwright’s most important advocates, but Your Blues is more Amiri Baraka than it is August Wilson. Unabashedly agitprop, the play advocates for both black and white Americans to embrace their sordid history rather than attempting to obviate its powerful influence on the present. If some of the characters are a bit flatly drawn and some of the dialogue a bit pat (“But ‘African-American’ is politically correct!” intones Judith at one point, saturated in the constructed earnestness of white liberal guilt), the play nonetheless succeeds in foregrounding and prioritizing its argument above all else. In a taut ninety minutes, Your Blues demonstrates a clear-eyed devotion to examining contemporary blindness to historical trauma.
While the play brims with biting truths that threaten to lacerate, its greatest strength is the performance of a stellar cast. Dirden and Ruff, reunited under the direction of Santiago-Hudson after excellent runs together in The Piano Lesson at the Signature Theater and Jitney at Two River, offer blistering performances, as does the great Charles Weldon. If the polemical tone of Your Blues is unsettling—as is surely the point of polemic—there is much to enjoy in the production’s master class in acting.