Grumpy Old (Black) Men

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James Craven and Abdul Salaam El Razzac star in “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking” at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul

Photo by Ann Marsden

What if the only person you had left in your life was someone you really couldn’t stand?

Such is the premise of “Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking” making its world premiere at Penumbra Theatre this weekend. The main characters, Abe and Henry, are both in their seventies, grew up in the same neighborhood, and even loved the same woman. But they don’t see eye to eye, as they make repeatedly clear while they sit together on the same bench every day. Penumbra Artistic Director Lou Bellamy says on the surface the play might resemble the popular film “Grumpy Old Men” but there’s more to it.

It’s a comedy, and there’s lots of laughter, but it’s not fluff. What makes the play different is that these guys aren’t imparting wisdom to the world as sage elders or griots, they are just living their lives. And in living their lives they’re encountering all the questions: how do you stay safe? How do you prepare for death? So you learn by their interaction, but not because they know the answers.

Playwright Gus Edwards had this play (among several others) sitting in a drawer for years. But a colleague read it, and eventually it made its way into the hands of Bellamy. Edwards said he intended the play as a sort of exercise for two actors who could really run with the characters. So the play has barely any stage directions. What it does have is insults:

Abe: You’re a fool. And the day you’ll realize that will be the day when one a them young animals you think so highly of, comes and puts a knife to your throat. Then we’ll see how brave and confident you are when you’re lying there with your eyes wide open staring up at nothing.

Henry: You’re a hopeless case. I see that now. I don’t know why I come into this park and talk to you. I do it and it’s a mystery to me because I don’t know why.

Abe: Because you’re lonely, that’s why. You’re lonely and old and looking for company.

Actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac says Abe and Henry are two people who don’t like each other, but they do need each other. For Razzac, it’s an analogy that applies itself well to race.

We do need each other, you know. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice, but by the same token, you’re not going to get along with everybody. I don’t have to like you to get along with you. There’s people in my family I don’t like, and don’t like me, but it’s still my family. And this is the family of humankind. So I want people to come away with a different sense of humanity.

Razzac remembers when he was a younger man, and how he would seek out elders for their advice, or just their stories. He doesn’t see that happening anymore.

Actor James Craven says the play has been a challenge on some levels. While he’s more than a decade away from the age of the character he plays, he empathizes with the plight of these older men. He hopes audiences will too.

I want them to see that old person in the grocery store or park and understand their fears and their vulnerabilities and their loneliness – to see them for who they are and where they are in life. We spend so much time walking past the homeless and aged, and with new technology we don’t even talk to each other anymore. We’re trying to get back to human contact.

Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking” opens tomorrow night at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. It runs through May 23.

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