What it's about.
NYU professor Calvin Jones is forced to move his estranged elderly father into his Harlem apartment when his health takes a turn for the worse. An early morning argument revives old tensions between the two, and their differing views on race and opportunity come to light.
I was drawn to this show because I knew it was centered in New York City, in Harlem specifically, and based on what little I knew about it (the title and the blurb), I hoped it would be a good show to see in honor of Black History Month.
The set resembled exactly the kind of gorgeous Manhattan apartment I know deep down I will never be able to afford. On the stage were two people, father and son, and I knew immediately they didn't get along. They were stiff around each other and they looked reluctant to even be in the same room. They didn't have to interact long for me to get the impression that it had been a while since they had last seen each other. I couldn't help but wonder why.
I used to work at a senior center doing data entry. It wasn't a home where senior citizens lived, but it was more like the elderly version of a Boys and Girls club - a place where seniors could hang out with people their own age. Most of the seniors were very lonely, and I learned that even though many of them had living family who lived close by, the majority of them hadn't seen their family in years. I couldn't imagine putting my parents in that position, so I came to the conclusion that these seniors weren't particularly close to their families. God only knows the exact nature of their baggage, but I was sure that it was there. Tolstoy said it best in his novel, Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Where you've got family, you've got dysfunction. And Some Old Black Man was ripe with dysfunction.
It all came down to race, really. Calvin grew up in Greenwald, Mississippi in a working class household. He excelled academically, and naturally went on to attend a prestigious university. His father, however, couldn't be fully happy for his son, because he would rather him have attended a historically black school like Howard University.
When Calvin brought home a white woman named Teresa to meet his family, his father was less than pleased, even going as far as to say to Teresa's face that they didn't "have room for her white ass in this family."
But the family was a lot smaller now.
Calvin and his father were both widowers. They had both lost the loves of their lives. They had both grown up as black men in America. Calvin's wife was a white woman, and his father's wife was a black woman. But the love was the same. Calvin's father was distrustful of white people after he had been so mistreated and racially profiled by them his whole life. Calvin faced the same discrimination, but he refused to let hate win. He and his wife lived many days as an interracial couple battling hateful looks and cruel words, but they persisted. And when they brought their son into the world, Teresa decided they should name him after Calvin's father, despite how unwelcoming he had been to her. And when Teresa died, it crushed Calvin, but still he persisted, and he honored his late wife's memory, not Teresa the white woman, but Teresa his love, the one who got him the way his father never could. And if Calvin's son were to bring home a significant other one day who wasn't black, it wouldn't matter one bit to Calvin. Because the love was what was important, and he understood that.
Calvin's father was pretty set in his ways. He enjoyed the most unhealthy foods and detested the idea of giving up any of his independence, even in the interests of his health. He was fiercely loyal to the black community - so much so, that he dismissed all other people without much thought. When the topic of Bill Cosby came up, instead of outright condemning his atrocious behavior, he tried to minimize it by arguing that there were white men doing the same bad things, if not worse things, that weren't getting the same negative attention. He wasn't wrong, but Calvin (and I) felt he was missing the point. There are white men guilty of the same types of sexual crimes as Bill Cosby who aren't getting put through the ringer, and this is horrible and racist and problematic, but it doesn't make Bill Cosby's actions any less monstrous. Just like being treated badly by some white people doesn't make all white people the enemy.
So...yeah. You could say Calvin and his father didn't see eye to eye. Family is interesting that way. You don't get to choose the circumstances you're born into, or the people you are raised by, but these people are forever linked to you, for better or worse. And you can go days, months, years without speaking to them, but they're still your family. There was Calvin, suddenly living under the same roof as his father, the man who raised him, the man he could never manage to be close to, and forced to take care of this man under rather unfortunate circumstances. And still, when it came down to it, it was almost as if no time had passed. Because their foundation was greater than their bickering and opinions by virtue of their relation and their love.
The thing is, (and I believe this with all my heart) you can dislike your family members and have very different beliefs than they do, but at the end of the day, you can still love them unconditionally. As far as Calvin and his father were concerned, in spite of all of the dysfunction, love was present. And as long as that was there, hate didn't stand a chance.
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