Lighthearted banter, a little bit of good-humored (if unwanted) advice and a few awkward moments open Jericho Road Improvement Association, seemingly the most unlikely of buddy comedies.
Paul, a middle-aged white barkeep (Fred Sharkey) and his 20-something black poolshark regular Cash (Abel Haptegeorgis) trade insults and stories, jockeying for verbal position in a little neighborhood joint at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 50-something Street in West Oakland.
And the offbeat sense is sweetened by the appearance of Jesse (Sam Leicher), aka Round Boy, a white BART security guard trying to moonlight, badly, as “underground” rap artist, pool hustler, hail-fellow—whatever—only for the scene to be unsettled by Paul’s troubled teenage kid Mike (James Miles) showing up from Pleasanton, searching for his absent dad to ask for something.
But midway through, another, more ominous, buddy act arrives—Arthur and Bob (Mark Shepard and Kevin Copps), greasing the menacing drift of their jibes to Paul and customers with the slick of off-duty cop humor, summoning up shadows that stretch from the Oakland Riders way back to the police shooting of Black Panther Bobby Hutton.
Hella Fresh Theatre went into its second weekend playing Jericho Road, directed by author John Rosenberg, in the intimate Phoenix Theatre off Union Square in San Francisco, while newspapers mulled over the preliminary hearing of the BART police officer accused of murder in the shooting of Oscar Grant; the investigation of Oakland police in the death of Jerry Amaro; and the wire service obit of former Illinois State Attorney Edward Hanrahan, defender of the Chicago police he later stood trial with in the shooting of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark four decades ago.
Jericho Road—and its protagonist—come out of the darkness of these nightmares, in hope of lighting up a little corner, reaching out a little. The title comes from Martin Luther King’s final speech, addressed to striking Memphis garbage collectors, the day before he was assassinated, citing the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, when the priest and the Levite hurry by a prostrate victim of thieves, late to “a meeting of the Jericho Road Improvement Association.”
Rosenberg’s second produced play shows a talent for dialogue and for shifting mood and momentum, going from very funny, even touching moments to chilling, over-the-top reversals as it delves into the motives and consequences of Paul’s own version of “giving back” to somebody else’s community, eliciting at first Cash’s kidding remarks that the joint should be called Reparations, so the whole neighborhood can drink for free, to the disgusted “All you people know how to do is apologize.” Later, trying to clean up the mess, Paul in a brief moment wonders who the real Good Samaritan in this tangled situation was, after all.
The cast works together as an ensemble, all acting well, with nonetheless standout performances by Sharkey and Haptegeorgis. Jericho Road engagingly captures something of the overtones in the confusion of intentions and loyalties characterizing what’s euphemistically referred to as “race relations.”