‘Black Sheep’ Offers An Absurdist Take On Race Relations

The basic premise of Black Sheep, a play by Lee Blessing that premiered in 2001 at Florida Stage and is now reappearing in South Florida for the first time since courtesy of the Main Street Players, is one that is rife with dramatic potential. Karl, the proverbial black sheep of the obscenely wealthy Winship family, is set apart from his WASPy relatives not only by his sordid past, which involves a conviction for the murder and a ten year prison sentence, but by his skin tone, the result of an ill-fated interracial marriage. Though he has been disowned by his parents due to his crime, Karl’s uber-rich Uncle Nelson is all too eager to take him under his wing, as is the rest of Nelson’s quirky family: his wife Serene, his son Max, and Max’s soon-to-be fiance Elle. 

But it doesn’t take long for Black Sheep to show its black comedy colors as ulterior motives for each Winship family member’s hospitality are gradually revealed, with each hoping to exploit Karl’s criminal past for their own selfish gains in order to one-up the others. Though a few funny moments come out of this ersatz set up, it’s one that gets old relatively quickly, especially when it is implied—and then unimplied and then reimplied ad finitumthat much of what has come before may actually be only taking place inside of Karl’s head, undermining any stakes the story develops along with any sense of overall narrative coherence. 

(L to R) Jennifer Weiner, Michael Vadnal, Kyran Wright, Anthony Wolff, Lucy Lopez (Photo Creds: Juan Gamero)

While the proceedings are still consistently provocative, what they aren’t is particularly insightful, with the shallow and stereotypical nature of the Winship characters also undermining the chance for Black Sheep to explore race relations in any real depth rather than in farcical caricature. Though unearned philosophical tangents and seemingly sincere monologues make it difficult to see the play as the sharp satire it seems to have been intended as, motifs like African figurines the Winships hope will make Karl feel more at home and Nelson mistaking Karl for a delivery guy are almost offensive in their ugly implausibility, a problem made worse by an uneven and often overly serious approach to the material by novice director Brandon Urrutia and an equally uneven cast. 

(L to R) Michael Vadnal, Kyran Wright (Photo Creds: Juan Gamero)

Lucy Lopez as money-hungry femme fatale Elle and Anthony Wolff as the entitled and egocentric Max offer performances that are at least entertaining, but Michael Vadnal’s energetic but ultimately bland turn as Nelson and Jennifer Weiner’s occasionally egregious overacting as the sex-crazed Serene are far less effective. Finally, though Kyran Wright has a decent stage presence as Karl, he seems only surface level engaged with the material, sometimes barely concealing a grin under his character’s umbrage. 

(L to R) Kyran Wright, Lucy Lopez, Anthony Wolff (Photo Creds: Juan Gamero)

A more competent take on Black Sheep may have avoided some of these pitfalls, with more distinct technical elements potentially heightening the play’s surrealistic insanity and a faster pace and higher pitch possibly lessening the sense of tedium that made the play seem overlong even without stretching too far over its allotted ninety minutes. However, it’s hard to imagine any fully satisfying staging of the script when it seems like shock value for shock value’s sake rather than any nuanced exploration is its modus operandi. 

(L to R) Kyran Wright, Jennifer Weiner (Photo Creds: Juan Gamero)

Still, you will find some genuinely amusing and compelling moments amidst Black Sheep’s mad world, with some of its slapstick sexual humor and jokes at the expense of the uber-rich landing mightily. In the same vein, there’s also some enjoyment to be had in watching the play’s morally bankrupt Winships temporarily seem to get their comeuppance and underdog Karl to pull ahead, at least before the plot’s next impenetrable shift from one reality to the next. Whatever you make of it, you are likely to find Black Sheep consummately unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, so you may want to make the time to examine Blessing’s bizarre vision for yourself before the show closes up on this August 14th!

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