Theatre Review of The Hallway: 2015 just as gruesome as 1936

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The unsaid subtleties of a narrative are the real heart of a story. I am sure when Leah-Simone Bowen was writing The Hallway, she was drawing parallels to how different the world in 2015 is to what it was in 1936 (the setting for her play). How does the cycle of poverty, marginalization, lack of access to the mainstream and just the never ending emotional violence that people of colour and most immigrants experience/ed continues to skin us alive? While Neptune, Sarah, Lev and Mrs. Rockford are people who inhabit a black rooming establishment in Harlem in 1936, these are people who inhabit our cities in the millions even today. It’s where poverty remains just as much a reality as it ever was and survival depends on the next morsel of bread you can barter with a next-door roomie or someone on the street for a favour.

Leah-Simone Bowen’s play The Hallway was stage read by the Black Theatre Workshop in Montreal on May 4, 2015. After more than seven workshops in Toronto, this stage reading found a fresh voice for the playwright. In Bowen’s words “It’s when a fresh set of actors are reading the play, you know what works and what doesn’t.” The Black Theatre Workshop selects one work as part of its Discovery Series to be stage read, for there are not enough resources to stage full productions of every good work that is written.

Bowen was inspired by her early years in Edmonton and her roots from Barbados. She speaks about the lost artists of the 1930s, who were never able to showcase their work to the world, as some of their counterparts did, leaving Harlem for Europe and other parts of North America.

The Hallway starts in the hallway of a rooming establishment of a dilapidated dwelling somewhere in Harlem. The year is 1936 and a heat wave is sweeping through the North East. Mrs. Rockford is the tenacious landlady who prides herself for having created an honourable living for herself, quite the feat for a middle aged black woman living at that time. Her tenants aren’t the most financially dependable people, but she keeps the place running. Neptune is a lonely, reclusive writer, who refuses to venture out of his apartment. Sarah is a single mother and struggling artist, who wishes to travel around Europe (especially Paris) and perform. Lev Ivanovich is a Russian immigrant, who does odd jobs like helping people scam the system with false medical certificates (he has Neptune write them up for him) or buying and selling drugs and god knows what. Sarah has a young daughter who talks to her imaginary friend, Angela, when she is not up to some mischief. The young girl seems to hold her own in the challenging environment she lives in. The hallway and its dwelling is their world and their worldview.

As the play moves along, emotionally charged relationships form between Lev and the landlady, Mrs. Rockford, as well as between Sarah and Neptune. Lev and Mrs. Rockford have a secret affair going. The landlady is always stopped in her tracks with him for fear of social reproach. While Lev pushes her to break from these shackles, she never is able to. Sarah does odd errands for Neptune, who in turn shares some of his bread and probably some money, but only when he can spare it. He is fond of Sarah’s little girl and parts with his morsels of food so that the girl can be fed. Sarah sees the little girl as a burden and cares little for her. It’s the other inhabitants, Lev, Mrs. Rockford and Neptune who end up watching over her.

The play speaks to the fragility of all its characters; it makes no bones about their state in life, yet stays clear of evident political rhetoric. I think the politics of it all and the relevance of something like the Hallway in today’s times is unquestionable. There are more people on the margins than ever. Poverty, living on less than minimum wage and the cycle of addiction and helplessness is the monster staring so many of us day in day out. It was uncanny how so many times during the play it felt like I was looking at our contemporary world and not something that happened close to a century ago. This is certainly telling of the world we have created; nothing seems to have really changed for the past 100 years.

The actors Mark Payete (Neptune), Lucinda Davis (Sarah), Alain Goulem (Lev) Warona Setshwaelo (Mrs. Rockford) and the little girl (Michaela Di Cesare) do justice to their parts, but Lucinda stands out as an often drugged up, dreamy artist, who has little to show for in her eyes and feels as if she lost out on a life of opportunity. She tries to hold it together, sniffing cocaine and the like as long as she can but finally succumbs.

While the written text should be able to do most of the talking, the lack of “ambiance” of a full production does limit how far one is pulled into the story. However, the writing is compelling, very appropriate and reflective of the times we live in.

After Sarah’s untimely passing, her little girl is left behind with no one to care for her. Lev finds some hope in his sharing with Mrs. Rockford and begins coaxing her to build something with him, the little girl included. She is somewhat convinced, but then not really. She is not sure she can trust a man like Lev and the source of his earnings. She also seeks to blame him for Sarah’s overdose. Her fear is society, which is potent and debilitating. As they debate what to do with the girl, Mrs. Rockford finds a foster home to place her. What happens in the end is rather surprising and leaves a few things unresolved.

Pick up the play or go to its next reading event, for a powerfully relevant work that speaks about race and poverty and how economic inequality remains at the heart of the race debate.

The Hallway ran as part of The Black Theatre Workshop’s Discovery series. Click HERE to keep abreast of future shows.

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