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By Neil Genzlinger

Published: April 8, 2008

The Negro Ensemble Company, hoping to sink roots in Harlem, is announcing itself with a distinctive show called “Webeime” that racks up plenty of style points, though not so many in the substance department.

Carmen L. De Jesus

The Negro Ensemble Company performing in “Webeime” by Layon Gray, their first show at the Harlem School of the Arts.

The work, written and directed by Layon Gray, might loosely be called a play, but structurally it’s really more of a collage, with bits of narrative, assorted monologues, a few chants and lots of choreographed songs invoking classic Motown. Performed by eight actors known collectively as the Black Gents of Hollywood, “Webeime” (we, be, I, me) tries to get inside the head of a nameless man who is about to be executed for a crime that, in the end, we don’t learn nearly enough about.

As he sits in his cell, the seven other actors, who seem to represent aspects of his personality, stage various episodes from his life. The ensemble engagingly creates a party scene in which he meets a girl and falls in love, but Mr. Gray is not afraid to cut these feel-good moments jarringly short to show the ugly parts of the man’s personal retrospective.

And it is here that “Webeime” ends up being something of a disappointment. Given the name of the theater company and the all-black-male cast, you have hopes of learning something new about what is behind disturbingly high black incarceration rates.

But this fellow’s troubles all seem to trace to that convenient literary fallback, child abuse and neglect. That’s not to minimize those problems, but blaming the parents is hardly a new plot device, and child abuse transcends race. Many people have overcome troubled childhoods to live exemplary lives; we never learn why this man did not.

"the Gents are never less than watchable, with Thom Scott II and Darren Thomas delivering especially riveting monologues."

The result is a show that looks and sounds great — the Gents are never less than watchable, with Thom Scott II and Darren Thomas delivering especially riveting monologues — but is not as profound as it thinks it is. Still, the production, the first in what the company hopes will be a permanent home, the Harlem School of the Arts, is a promising start.

“Webeime” continues through May 4 at the Harlem School of the Arts, 645

St. Nicholas Avenue, at West 141st Street; (212) 279-4200.


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