Darius & Twig

by John Stoltenberg

I cannot help but think that if W.E.B. DuBois were alive, he would absolutely love Darius & Twig, the passionately purposeful play by Caleen Sinnette Jennings adapted from Walter Dean Myers’s popular young adult novel of the same name. Now running in the Family Theater at The Kennedy Center in a production as playful as it is profound, Darius & Twig is positively pulsing with edifying energy and “the vision of seers.”

The phrase is from DuBois’s famous 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” which begins:

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers.

It would be ahistorical to wish DuBois’s conscientious attention to black men did not leave out black women. He was a man of his time, after all. But he was a man ahead of his time as well: His point about the uplifting importance for a people of excellent higher education for its exceptional upper percentile has stood the test.

Darius and Twig are two boys living in Harlem, one black, one Hispanic. They’re in high school, they are best friends, and they each excel. Darius writes, so well that during the play his story is accepted for publication in a literary journal. Twig runs, so fast that during the play he triumphs in competition.

That Darius is a “seer” is explicit in the script. He poetically imagines himself flying like a falcon and tells us he sees things only he can see. Twig too envisions the victory he wishes to achieve.

Significantly Darius and Twig deeply esteem each other’s excellence and want each other to succeed—a beautiful part of their bond. They are not in competition with each other. They are in competition for their future, which they know is dependent on getting into a good school (“You have to give a damn for yourself”).

The boys face obstacles to their aspirations. Darius’s Mama is a single mother living near poverty, raising Darius and his brother Brian, and struggling with a drinking problem. Twig’s Uncle Ernesto pressures him to quit. There’s a sadistic neighborhood bully named Midnight who with his sidekick Tall Boy taunts and torments Darius and Twig, calling Twig “fairy feet.”

But there are significant adults in their world who recognize Darius and Twig’s talents and who encourage and support them. The discipline and determination to succeed evidenced by both Darius and Twig are dramatically exemplified. In the end both Darius and Twig are accepted to colleges on scholarship. And the thrill of their accomplishment rippled through the mostly adult audience on opening night.

As Darius, Justin Weaks gives a phenomenally eloquent performance. There need to be more vehicles—like this and Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea—for his transfixing acting agility. And he was extraordinarily well matched by the exuberant Twig played by Christopher Wilson, who doubled as Brian. Appearing in 13 supporting roles were the astonishingly versatile Manu Kumasi and Latia Stokes. Director Eleanor Holdridge created a lively, believable world, and most remarkably she makes the atypical tenderness underlying the relationship between Darius and Twig completely credible.

The set by Andrew Cohen is an urban montage of graffiti-filled brick walls, basketball backstop, garbage can, newsstand, all against blue sky breaking through. Overhead was spray-painted “One person can only do so much”—with the word “only” crossed out. That edited legend is a tip-off that there is a pedagogy at play in this play. Its inspirational messaging is intrinsic to every scene, and a colorfully designed Cuesheet program guide intended for young audiences ensures that its lessons last. For instance,

What it takes to be a runner,
what it takes to be writer
you have to be the best you can,
you have to be a fighter.

The best, the best you can… Over a century ago DuBois capitalized the word Best. Darius & Twig underscores it with true-to-life contemporary truth. And the result is one of the best shows in town for young audiences of all ages.

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