The view from the asphalt-paved courtyard surrounded by housing projects isn’t a pretty sight. In fact, the desolate space with nothing but a pair of park benches is downright depressing for Ida (Aziza Macklin), an 18-year-old girl who yearns to escape from the environment and from her disabled, domineering mother. The restricted view prevents seeing much of the sky, which seems to be pressing down on everyone’s life — hence Christina Anderson’s title for her 2013 play, BlackTop Sky.
Ida is torn between two diametrically opposed men. Wynn (Landon Horton), her older boyfriend, is a hardworking auto mechanic, but he’s seven years older, eager to deepen their relationship and tends to be forceful and controlling, wanting his way. Then there’s Klass (Kameron Richardson), the young, initially inarticulate homeless man who decides to settle on the park benches. He has picked up her keys, requiring some awkward interaction, and she becomes fascinated with him. Ida’s attentions to him in an on-again, off-again dance of acquaintance does not sit well with Wynn, and the results are predictably rough.
There’s not much in the way of new ground broken in this story about distrust and poverty, about the ways that life in such restricted places erodes people’s humanity. Will Ida yield to Wynn’s offers of a better life? She has almost no point of reference for anything better, but his possessive ways with her do not promise happiness. On the other hand, Klass is clearly damaged, and there seems to be little chance that he can escape his narrowly defined life, cluttered with the detritus of junk he collects — abandoned clothes, a floor lamp, a malfunctioning umbrella, a tireless bicycle wheel, a sink — let alone offer her any viable path beyond some kind of simple friendship.
And even that possibility seems unlikely because of his instability. So the show portrays lives that are pretty dead-end. You kind of root for Klass — who speaks a poetic interior monologue about three-quarters of the way through that sheds some light on his impoverished life and aspirations — but it’s evident he won’t find his way out. You hope that Ida might help him, but she’s struggling to help herself. And Wynn offers Ida’s only visible means of escape. That leads to a not-very-satisfying conclusion to the stories of these three confined, all but forgotten people.
That’s not to say that Anderson’s script, staged by Kimberly Faith Hickman, doesn’t have its moments. She writes with occasional lyricism and feeling, and Klass’s descent into homelessness is powerfully portrayed. BlackTop Sky has 34 scenes, several of them entirely wordless; even these are expressive as we see unspoken interaction, especially between Ida and Klass. The short scenes and blackouts result in an episodic and choppy pace; the story goes almost nowhere, and in fact circles back to a police confrontation that repeats the events from the play’s opening scene. Desperation underlies these sad stories, and the telling does not hold out much promise of change. That’s an important if not altogether entertaining message.
Hickman does bring fine performances from these three young actors who all have local connections. Macklin, a graduate of Wright State, served an internship at Ensemble Theatre; she is now working in Chicago. Horton is a theater major at Northern Kentucky University who’s focused on writing for the stage. And Richardson is a senior musical theater major at the College-Conservatory of Music. They have embraced their troubled character and made them feel painfully real.
BLACKTOP SKY, presented by Know Theatre, continues through Feb. 20.