If by definition a provocateur is one who “causes discussion, thought or argument,” then playwright Thomas Bradshaw is certainly one of the most provocative writers now working. In Mary, his inaugural Goodman production in 2011, his comic depiction of a white Southern family, their devoted black servants and the gay son whose attempts to bring the group into the more politically correct 21st century caused sharply divided critical response and impassioned nightly audience discussions. His play Intimacy, premiered by the New Group off-Broadway in 2014, chronicles the efforts of a high school senior to recreate the “golden age” of porn films by enlisting his more-than-willing family members. And in the based-on-truth Strom Thurmond is Not a Racist, Bradshaw examines the mind-bending contrast between the famous segregationist senator’s aggressive public face and his loving relationship with his bi-racial daughter. In an era in which popular culture often reduces human actions to “good” or “evil,” then forces us to choose sides, Bradshaw slyly confronts us with characters whose actions may seem illogical or downright wrong, then leaves us to examine our own responses to them.
This has never been so evident than in his newest work, Carlyle. The story of an African American lawyer and his rise to fame, the play challenges the assumption that the term “black conservative” is an oxymoron, and gleefully skewers a number of other notions that we might normally ascribe to a particular group or class. Carlyle was the undisputed hit of our 2014 New Stages Festival, where its satiric view of American politics and society seemed delightfully outlandish. But as the events of the past few months have shown us, American politics are never predictable, and Bradshaw’s incisive dissection of the vast distance between preconception and reality now seems remarkably prescient.
This production reunites some of the artists who made the 2014 workshop staging so memorable, particularly the inventive stage director Benjamin Kamine and the enormously gifted actor James Earl Jones II, whose portrayal of the title character is both hilarious and offhandedly wise. In the end, Carlyle will undoubtedly provoke much discussion, a great deal of thought and perhaps some argument—with the energetic wit, unabashed passion and the distinctive point of view that only Bradshaw can bring.