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Karen Bardash

“Lambs to Slaughter”
A timely and relevant world premiere replete with pathos and hope


June 16 to July 3, 2022
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Presented by The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:00 PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM but 7:00 PM only on June 18 and July 3 (total 16 performances).
$35 general admission., $25 seniors/students.
https://necinc.org/ Audience info: 212-582-5860.
Reviewed by Karen Bardash July 3, 2022

Khalil Kain as Paul

The message that LOVE can and will lift us up in our darkest times must be heard. At its heart, 'Lambs to Slaughter' is a love story.” So begins playwright Khalil Kain’s introduction to his play. I would add that in addition to love this beautifully written and exquisitely acted piece is about healing, hope, and time. As one of the characters states, “Love is like time. Sooner or later they both catch up with you.”

Adiagha Faizah as Joan, Terayle Hill as Emmett.

The two-hour production is forcefully driven by its spot-on script and spoken-word poetry. The lyrical element, interspersed throughout and often introducing scenes, is accompanied by a four-piece band and an engaging beat (instrumental underscore provided by Keith Edward Johnson). A contemporary drama takes place in an inner-city apartment over the course of a year. The set by Romello Huins is perfect: a living room framed by open walls, intimate enough to enable the audience to live, breathe, and feel along with the characters, and yet open to enable their dreams and future hopes to soar. Prominently featured is a clock; the first thing I noticed on the small stage. The hands do not move but the clock is almost a character in itself. “Time is fluid. Time is an idea agreed upon to bring structure to chaos.” In “Lambs to Slaughter” the characters are certainly looking for a way out of their individual chaos.

Terayle Hill and Khalil Kain.

It is in the early morning hours when we first meet Joan, a late thirties single mother. She is awakened when her teenage son, Emmet, enters their living room where she fell asleep on the sofa. Her groggy worry is palpable. Her grilling and strong advice are understandable. Her maternal instincts are honed yet she is lost in grief and unsure of how to best protect her child. We come to learn that she recently lost her older son and Emmet’s half-brother, Lonny, to gun violence. Emmet, at times an appropriately sullen and angry youth, is never-the-less loving and protective of his mother. He seems to carry a burden that we later come to understand.

Scene two begins, and Athena enters. A neighbor and friend, she is like a younger sister to Joan and a confidant to Emmet. Athena is a bright spot of positivity throughout, always trying to draw Joan back to life from mourning, and in private to center and encourage Emmet to move on and fulfill his potential. For all she tries, her job isn’t an easy one, as she shares their weight.

Shaquila "Qualah" Gooden (Athena) and Terayle Hill (Emmett).

Scene three introduces us to Paul. He is the father of the deceased Lonny, a former lover of Joan, and a semi-father figure to Emmet whose own father had been murdered. Having been incarcerated for years he has turned his life around, now finds himself in a good place, and wants to take Joan out of both her emotional and situational space. His character is filled with love, compassion, and hope.

Many scenes follow over the two acts and they are filled with superb acting. The emotionally-charged dialogue highlights the strength of the Black mother as well as the multi-dimensions of the Black man; the facades behind which they hide, the soul beneath that front, and the limits and limited expectations imposed upon them by society. “Lambs to Slaughter,” as the title suggests, is an homage to those whose lives are walked on a tightrope, the balance being one decision vs. another. I have to admit, as a white woman, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to relate to Kain’s work, or appropriately review it. How wrong I was. The intensity of the acting was riveting to the extent that I felt fully present with the characters. The talent of the cast enabled me to be there in that small apartment. When Joan, played by Adiagha Faizah, became aware of the reality of the situation and broke down doubled over in sobs and rivers of tears I was shaking in my seat and reaching for the tissues. This was not the only side of Joan that Ms. Faizah portrayed; she seamlessly fluctuated from being aloof, curt, distanced, and depressed, to embracing her sexuality with a hint of playfulness. So complex the character, so amazingly portrayed.

Khalil Kain not only penned this stunning play but also acted in the role of Paul. He had a lightness of spirit, a bounce in his step, softness of touch, and an aura of optimism. Mr. Kain portrayed the trajectory from a formerly lost soul to one redeemed, which was nothing short of inspirational. The scenes he shared with Terayle Hill, who played Emmet, were infused with a palpable male bond of understanding and circumstance. The shared sparkle of their eyes was as genuine as genuine could be. This was Mr. Hill’s first foray into live theater and he is a natural. His timing was precise and his expressiveness, especially when trying to help his mother, was touching. Shaquila Gooden played Athena. Miss Gooden’s broad smile and expressive eyes were full of joy and encouragement. A constant throughout was the love each character and actor held for another.

Adiagha Faizah as Joan.

And then there was the clock. How many times did the characters turn to it? How many times did they reach for it, talk to it, or refer to it? Was Lonny there in the timepiece? Were history and experiences there enshrined? Did the fact that the clock was never set correctly serve to hold on to the past while holding back a future? At the start of the second act Joan comments, “I didn’t know it would end like this. Pain so deep it would follow us. Pain so great that it would…… stop time.” Happily, in the final moments of the play, as they leave the apartment for the final time Paul points to the clock and asks Joan, “What about that?” She answers, “Leave it. It’s just time.” The play finishes with the characters able to move forward; where they go, I will not say. I hope you will one day be able to see this play and find that out for yourselves.

“Lambs to Slaughter,” Mr. Kain’s playwriting world premiere, is an important and relevant piece that should not be ignored. The performance filled the quaint Cherry Lane Theatre. Impressively written, directed (by Reginald L. Douglas), and acted - it deserves a longer run in a larger house. Keep your eyes open in case that comes to be. I hope it will. Time will tell.


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