Between Riverside and Crazy: a world-class performance at ACT SF

I don’t often feel compelled to write about the plays I see (yes, I’ve become one of them bougie cultured folk in my old age), but holy smokes, that was amazing and hilarious and unexpected.

Between Riverside and Crazy tells the story of a wounded former NYPD cop, Walter Washington, fighting to keep his rent controlled apartment in what has become a millionaire’s neighborhood in Manhattan. We find out quickly that Walter, who was a black cop in a time when racism was more overtly acceptable, was shot six times eight years ago by a white rookie fellow cop who called him a nigger as he shot him. Walter’s account was never verified, and the details were shady, so nothing really came of the case. But he never gave up on it or on his bitterness, even as his marriage deteriorated further and his wife died a few years later. Walter is now housing his adult son Junior, who returned home to take care of him after multiple jail stints; his son’s friend Oswaldo, also a convicted felon; and his son’s girlfriend Lulu, who is nice but absurdly ditzy.

At a time when the news is exploding with accounts of black people being killed seemingly just for being black, and San Francisco and facing its own gentrification crisis and inevitable discussions of that relationship to race and socioeconomic inequality, this play is so timely and hits home so hard. It’s not all grim, however. Impressively, this play takes a lot of grim situations and presents them with irony and humor (something that ACT plays in general do very well).

What I loved most about this production, however, was the complexity of the individuals and the relationships between them. Even discounting the poignant race relations and diverse cultural backgrounds of the characters, the individual characters were so interesting and complicated, and this short blog is not going to do justice to them. Walter, as the main character, is far from perfect. He’s blunt and even mean, yelling about his “motherfucker” dog and berating his son for giving him the dog “as if to [placate] a child,” even as he yells at his tenants to make sure the dog gets walked and fed–it’s clear that he loves it, even if he won’t admit it. Walter yells at Junior constantly, and they say intentionally cruel and hurtful things to each other and have an explosive relationship in the worst way possible. But it’s clear that he cares about him too–he yells at Junior to go take a vacation and undermines the kind intention by saying it’s because he paid for it already, and later he yells at him to eat lots of things with fiber and potassium, because potassium lowers blood pressure. It was sweet in a weird and comical way, and it’s a significant contrast from Oswaldo’s relationship with his Puerto Rican father, whom Oswaldo describes as being “old-school” and who hits Oswaldo in the face and basically calls him a piece of shit criminal when Oswaldo tries to visit. In response, Oswaldo gets super drunk or high or both to avoid his feelings of anger and shame and what-have-you, and it was one of the saddest and most frightening things to watch.

I found these family dynamics so interesting and existentially sad, how the children keep wanting or needing to please the fathers who have treated them so poorly–and the father have mistreated them not because they are inherently bad people but because that’s all they know. Even Walter admits towards the end that he has “lived his entire life in reaction to [his] father,” whom he never knew, and that he made all these mistakes in his familial relationships in his efforts to be the opposite of the deadbeat father he hated. It’s also interesting that Walter had an arguably better or more pleasant relationship with Oswaldo, who called Walter “Dad” and spoke to him with great affection, than with his own son, perhaps because there weren’t any expectations or that much baggage between them.

I related to a lot of this, and it’s part of why this play affected me so deeply. As a non-participating witness to the interactions between the parents and children, I couldn’t help but find it deeply tragic, in a Grecian fated sort of way. I could empathize with the children, because I have lived a lot of their experience, and I am intimately familiar with the rage and brokenness that comes from a beloved parent’s death, from having an emotionally inadequate or abusive second parent, with the poverty and inequality and environmental stresses that lead to all these messed up dynamics. But I can also empathize with the parents, because if you think of your inadequate parents objectively, as fellow human beings, they are far from perfect, they’ve had such hard lives in their own right, and they are reacting in the only ways they know how. What do you even do? How do you deal with this and not let the sense of existential sorrow crush you?

Tonight was one of the first nights of Between Riverside and Crazy at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. There were a few lighting issues, but the acting was fantastic and fully deserving of the standing ovation. The actor playing Walter previously played a similar character in Let There Be Love, which was in many ways thematically similar and which I would also highly recommend.

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