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Boys in the Hood

A gritty look at life in the drug game transfixes at Arena Players

Eric Austin pins Justin Price as Lee Maurice Daniels looks on.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 11/18/2009

Actor Laurence Fishburne wrote Riff Raff, his first and, it appears, only play, in eight days while he was filming a movie. And--and this is really going to piss off struggling playwrights--it's a great play. Written in 1994, Riff Raff is a tale of urban desperation and the drug game that, unfortunately, doesn't feel the least bit dated. The language is raw--if you're not up for some serious swearing, go see something else--the emotions and relationships are complex, and the story seems so perfectly Baltimore, you'd think Fishburne wrote it after watching a marathon of The Wire instead of nearly a decade before the show premiered.

As the play opens Mike "20/20" Leon (Eric Austin) enters a room in the upper levels of an abandoned building. He has blood on his shirt and looks a mess. The room looks even worse, tattered with junkie debris. Billy "Torch" Murphy (Justin Price) comes in soon after. He is in bad shape, sweating and cradling his injured hand in his jacket. The two went to rip off a big time dealer and things went bad when Torch got trigger happy. They planned to hightail it out of town after the heist but the guy who was supposed to get them out never showed up. Now they are holed up in a crack house trying to figure out their next move.

The confident, collected Mikey and twitchy, emotional Torch seem like a weird pairing. The two men met in jail and discovered they both had the same father. Their father was married to Torch's mother. Mikey's mother was a woman their father knocked up and left. But life with their father was as rough, though in different ways, as life without, and if anything Mikey seems the better adjusted of the two men.

Mikey calls on his friend Tony "The Tiger" (Lee Maurice Daniels) to help them get out of this jam. Tony and Mikey go way back and used to hustle together, and even served time together, but after they got out, Tony went straight. Now he has a wife and a baby, but he still comes to this ramshackle hell hole to help Tony out.

Mikey's nickname 20/20 is an inspired choice. In the play, Mikey refers to his "20/20" constantly, making it sound like extrasensory insight rather than the normal vision it actually stands for. And as the play continues, what the audience and eventually Mikey realize is that Mikey's ability to see what is right in front of him isn't very good.

Austin is excellent as Mikey. Fishburne, who says in his author's note that he wrote the play "to create a very intense exercise for myself as an actor," played Mikey in the original. It's hard to imagine Fishburne in the role. He's so hard and Austin's Mikey is all soft edges. A hood, sure, but one who is deeply caring, perhaps to a fault. Austin's performance was incredibly engaging and absolutely believable despite the long speeches and wide range of emotions he had to work through. Price starts off stiff as Torch but comes into his own as the play continues and Torch spirals out of control. And Daniels brings a understatedness to Tony that is a perfect contrast the exuberant Mikey and overwrought Torch.

With such strong writing and performances this play should be an unmitigated success--but it isn't. The production values at Arena let the actors and the play down. Byron Rodgers stage is well done, but the lighting by Charlene Williams is a disaster. The lights came up and down at odd times on a few occasions, making the performance feel more like a tech run through than its second week onstage. The lights also failed to go dark for the scene changes. Watching Torch pass out and wondering if he is alive or dead gets ruined by Price having to stand up and walk off a lit stage in full view of the audience.

The play was so engrossing; you really had moments of feeling like you were watching something true unfold, but these awkward transitions destroyed that illusion. The sound was also problematic. Arena's stage has microphones hanging from the ceiling. The problem is when an actor gets too close to one of these mics, he becomes too loud and artificial sounding. If another sound hook up couldn't be worked out--though in such a small theater they don't really need amplification--then director Randolph Smith should have compensated with his blocking. Aside from this misstep, Smith does an excellent job bringing Riff Raff to life, keeping the action fast paced and giving it a natural feel.

The theater was only sparsely filled on the Friday night attended for this review. The play, and this production of it in particular, deserves an audience.

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