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by Jerry Portwood

April 7, 2008

At the start, Layon Gray's all-male ensemble play Webeime appears to encompass the contemporary black male experience, something akin to Ntozake Shange's all-female choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. But Gray, who also directs and acts in this production, has instead decided to focus it on one man's story told through a series of voices, personalities, and perspectives that veers toward reductionism rather than attempting to speak to everyone.

The eight-member cast of attractive young black men begins by singing and dancing a

choreographed routine that soon devolves into a violent scene. Actor Donn Swaby attacks an unknown target and pummels the air; he's then stripped of his clothes, dons a prisoner's familiar bright orange uniform, and is thrust into a cell upstage center, where he remains voiceless for the rest of the performance. The other seven actors are dressed in tuxedo garb -- red ties, armbands -- paired with sneakers; they give monologues, sing a mostly 1960s soundtrack, and dance in unison. Soon enough we realize these men represent different facets of the imprisoned man's past and personality rather than distinct experiences. The play then becomes a repetitive search for culpability, finally settling on the young man's father, who beat the boy's mother and raped him as a child. Scenes re-enacting the molestation and abuse are overplayed, with Gray mostly casting himself as the sobbing, violated victim.

"As a whole, the actors are outstanding... Thom Scott II stands out with his ability to charm -- even while recounting an awkward sexual malfunction." 

As a whole, the actors are outstanding, effectively transitioning from sweet to frightening at a moment's notice. Thom Scott II stands out with his ability to charm -- even while recounting an awkward sexual malfunction. But Gray indulges his artistic notions too easily, harping on the same points repeatedly and dragging the production past two and a half hours, squandering all the goodwill the cast has gained. With some crucial edits, however, Gray could have something powerful on his hands.

Presented by the Negro Ensemble Company in association with the Negro Ensemble Alumni Association at the Harlem School of the Arts, 645 St. Nicholas Ave., NYC.

April 5-May 4. Wed.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m.

(212) 279-4200 or


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