Whether it’s careful foresight or just plain luck, the Public Theater has displayed a remarkable ability recently for producing shows that touch directly on current political issues.
Last week, “Grounded,” a one-woman show starring Anne Hathaway about a military drone pilot who gets involved in an operation in which a civilian is accidentally killed, premiered at the theater.
Now comes “ToasT,” a gritty drama by spoken word artist Lemon Andersen (“Def Poetry Jam”) that depicts the everyday life of inmates at Attica Prison immediately before the famous 1971 riot that led to 43 deaths.
Given the increased concern over living conditions at Rikers Island and the treatment and rights of prisoners in general, “ToasT” is very timely.
The prisoners explored in “ToasT” are based on figures in African-American folklore. The title “ToasT” refers to the oral storytelling tradition in which such people are remembered. Dolomite, the play’s lead character, was seen in 1970s Blaxploitation films.
The play mainly explores whether Dolomite (Keith David), who has spent a quarter of a century in the prison and is on the verge of receiving parole, will join in the coming riot, especially after Hard Rock (Hill Harper), a young, intelligent Vietnam vet who is unafraid of speaking out against abuses in the system, is painfully silenced by the correctional officers.
Although it features complex characters, poetic flourishes and an excellent ensemble cast, at more than 2 hours, “ToasT” is weighed down by an excess of slow-paced dialogue and scenes unrelated to the narrative. But with some judicious editing, “ToasT” may have a future ahead.