And he did, adding a soupçon of Christopher Marlowe, a dash of Spike Lee, some Kevin Smith, a bit of Shakespeare and stirred it all together with wit, charm, and ultimately, profundity. The Fall of Heaven is one hell of a show (and it also taught me I should leave the pre-judging to St. Peter, unreasonable though he might be).
The set-up has Tempest Landry (Bryan Terrell Clark), walking along, minding his own business while juggling phone calls with his wife and his lover and trying to work his iPod. Suddenly, lights flash, sirens wail, and Tempest is shot down by police who mistake him for someone else. In a nice little touch, one of the visible street signs at the scene of the shooting marks “Malcolm X Blvd.” Immediately, he finds himself on line with a bunch of others who look like Monty Python’s hooded monks, each receiving and meekly obeying St. Peter’s judgment. When it’s finally his turn, St. Peter cites Tempest’s actions, including fights, a knifing, stealing from the church, and consigns him to hell. But Tempest says, in effect, “Hell, no. I won’t go.” He argues that doing the right thing can mean having to resort to methods that on their own are considered wrong. Infuriated at the man’s cheekiness, St. Peter lets out a mighty roar and Tempest finds himself back on the street where he died.
He quickly meets Joshua Angel (Corey Allen) whose last name is also his job description. He has served as Tempest’s “accounting angel” throughout his earthly life, and it’s Joshua’s job to convince Tempest to accept the will of Heaven and agree to be damned. Right here, there seems to be something of a lack of motivation for the action as Joshua begins thundering about how existence itself, here and in the afterlife, has been threatened by Tempest’s intransigence; that, in fact, his exercise of free will has made him the most powerful being in the universe. Tempest is primarily concerned that he has found himself in a body he doesn’t recognize (he was shot 17 times and was gone three years, so he has been “reassigned”) and cannot approach his wife and children or his girlfriend. Also, Joshua is forced to live as a human during his time on earth, which he assumes will be short, with all that entails.
The Fall of Heaven depicts angels in the “Great Chain of Being” sense: They are not and never were human. They were created by God and have no gender or race. They exist to serve and glorify the “Infinite.” So, Joshua’s got some surprises in store for him. At this point, the story divides into two main threads: Joshua’s life on earth and Tempest’s ongoing struggles with his own fate. Joshua gets a job as an accountant and rents an apartment. Tempest was left with no money and has to scrounge to live. Slowly, Joshua begins to understand Tempest on a level that he never could as an otherworldly being and they become uneasy friends; even at one point, sharing fruit, apples, of course.
The women in their lives include Branwyn Wells (Kenya Brome), with whom they both fall in love, and Rachel Leslie as both Alfreda and Darlene. The former is Tempest’s lover in his previous life and he seeks her out again in his new incarnation; the latter is a sassy secretary in the office where Joshua works, whose acquaintance with him has unexpected consequences. Even as he becomes increasingly attached to life as a human being, Joshua remains dedicated to his mission to bring Tempest around to acceptance of Heaven’s judgment. As for Tempest, he decides to do some traveling and when he returns to New York, he isn’t alone. In New Orleans, he has met a new “friend” called “Basil Bob” (Jeffrey C. Hawkins). Of course, the implication of Bob’s name is clear. So, a new entity is now in the struggle for Tempest’s soul.
Mosley has managed to craft a play that keeps the audience laughing while throwing some big issues at us, such as free will vs. destiny; the situation ethics governing the definitions of “good” and “evil”; racism; class distinctions; the poverty of existence without love; and more. All the actors are fascinating in their nuanced portrayals of characters caught up in a struggle that some of them don’t even know is going on. Allen plays Joshua as a Sidney Poitier black man during that actor’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner period. Allen even carries himself like Poitier and sounds like him at times. Joshua is beyond good; he IS goodness itself. Gradually, he becomes more human as time goes on. Clark is all bravado at first, but there are many layers to him. He may do the exaggerated pimp roll George Jefferson made familiar to America’s TV audiences, but there is real stress under the strut. The weight of his responsibility constantly threatens to bring him, quite literally, down.
Hawkins is a comedic delight as the bigoted Bob. He takes every opportunity to gain control of Tempest, but he has made one disastrous (for him) error: He has underestimated the man, which reflects the fact that African-Americans have labored under that burden since they arrived on the slave ships. Tempest’s aria about black people’s constant fear is reminiscent of Shylock’s “If you prick him, doth not a Jew bleed?” speech, and is delivered with compelling passion. I think the biggest weakness this script has is the depiction of Brome’s and Leslie’s characters, however, Ironically, they are stereotypes: the Madonna and the Whore, respectively, though down deep, both are good women. I’d have liked more depth.
Still, there is a whole lot of story going on, and Joshua, Tempest and Bob are the main players in it. Seth Gordon has directed his actors beautifully, but he has, as he did in Next Fall, weakened his own production by approving a set that is just too busy. This is not a movie. We don’t need beds moving in and out, and props being carried on and off stage during the dialogue to enter this imaginary world. It’s flashy and looks cool, but it is distracting. Michael Lincoln’s lights add a lot of atmosphere and Rusty Wandall’s sound is, as always, appropriate and evocative.
Set issues aside, however, The Fall of Heaven is the Rep’s best show to date this season. I recommend it for all but the kiddies and prudes because of a dash of strong language. When a play is funny, provocative, and finally deeply moving as this one is, then it succeeds in all the ways that matter.
For more information, visit www.repstl.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT