A. Zell Williams Reclaims the Black Man’s Humanity
by Tyler Jeffreys & Robert M. Gardner
“The Urban Retreat” shows us that Hip Hop is the new slavery. We follow MC Trench Deep, as he goes from a fabricated performer to a vulnerable artist. Thugalicious Hip Hop star Trench Deep thinks he’s finally made it, living up in the hills of Mill Valley. Darryl V. Jones’ stellar cast spits tight rhymes along with traditional dialogue, freeing their voices.
Trench (volatile, passionate Lenard Jackson) looks down the hill to see the high school where Tupac Shakur attended—and believes he has made it. His old high school teacher Chaucer Mosley (powerful Adrian Roberts) believes that Trench has sold out.
On the Chi-town Subway, mysterious student Setty Rexpin (fluid, animated Jamey Williams) harasses Chaucer with sweet moves and lyrics, offering his demo CD. Setty represents the youthful, innocent version of the Black man before America’s meddling.
Trench Deep flies his teacher out from the streets of South Side Chicago to Cali. As a successful hip hop star, Trench turns the tables—literally. Trench forces Chaucer to sit in a student’s desk, while he sits in a larger teacher’s desk! Despite his long-held resentment, Trench hires Chaucer to ghostwrite his memoir.
Trench’s high energy manager Pooh Butt (mercurial LaKeidrick Wimberly) controls him with prescription pills. Pooh Butt threatens Chaucer when he calls Trench by his “slave name,” Sidney. Trench is also manipulated by the aggressive, two faced publishing executive Maggie Farmer (versatile, talented Miriam Ani) and stuttering assistant Angie (sassy Emily Kistner). Neither of them is interested in Trench’s artistic growth, instead they capitalize on his trauma from the ‘hood.
During a four-day writing retreat, Trench and Chaucer unravel each other’s emotional blocks using tense banter. On their first meeting, Trench roasts and belittles his former teacher with sarcastic freestyle flows. As Chaucer, Adrian Robert’s condescending glare delights us, as Trench’s shows off his gangster rap skills.
Frustrated, Chaucer scolds Trench, accusing him of glorifying thug life, which fulfills White stereotypes of Black lives. Trench retorts that his financial success validates his violent lyrics. When someone goes from selling drugs to selling songs about drugs, they’re still selling death.
Trench’s anger boils over as he collapses and unravels onstage. Playwright A. Zell Williams exposes a Black man’s hidden emotional blocks. Corporate America pressures Trench to adopt the Big Black Brute stereotype, suppressing his true nature.
As Trench crawls and pounds the floor with neck veins bulging, we see a lifetime of emotional slavery on stage. Chaucer empathizes with him and lets him have his rant. When we see Trench’s anger morph into desperation, we know we can never understand the anger of a Black man.
Ultimately the play promises hope for a better day. Trench Deep’s journey from riches to realness reveals the hidden life of Black entertainers in America. “The Urban Retreat” proves that it’s our duty to break the chains of Pop Culture.
“The Urban Retreat” by A. Zell Williams, directed by Darryl V. Jones, at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, San Francisco, through Saturday, April 6, 2019. Info: lhtsf.org
Cast: Adrian Roberts, Lenard Jackson, Jamey Williams, Emily Kistner, Miriam Ani, LaKeidrick Wimberly, April Ballestros, and Darryl V. Jones.