Stephen Adly Guirgis is angry — and that's a good thing. With productions like the corrosive The Little Flower of East Orange and Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, he's solidified his reputation for delivering emotion at its rawest. His characters constantly rant, scream, cry, and confront each other, and it's a testament to the author's skill that he's able to develop them into fully fleshed-out human beings that an audience can relate to.
Set principally in a Harlem funeral home and nearby bar, Our Lady of 121st Street is ostensibly about a group of friends and former classmates reuniting for the funeral of their teacher Sister Rose, a nun with a fearsome reputation who nonetheless has touched their lives in a meaningful way. They want to pay their last respects, but there's a problem: Her body's been stolen.
The funeral is delayed as the search commences, so these old friends and acquaintances spend the long night drinking, reminiscing (and not all the memories are pleasant), reopening old wounds and creating new ones. There's Balthazar, the New York detective who drinks to mask his private pain; Rooftop, who'd fled the neighborhood to find success as a DJ in Los Angeles, leaving his bitter wife, Inez, behind; Edwin, who takes care of his brain-damaged brother, Pinky; Flip, a closeted attorney who's brought along his boyfriend, Gail, but is afraid to reveal the true nature of their relationship; and Marcia, SIster Rose's niece, who's inherited her late aunt's explosive temper.
Our Lady is presented as a series of episodic vignettes, a theatrical device that can be risky, but Guirgis skilfully crafts a compelling story with direction and purpose.
The first character we meet is Vic, wearing no pants and kneeling before the coffin. When Balthazar arrives to investigate the crime, Vic delivers the first rant of the piece, despairing over the theft of Sister Rose's body as well as his pants. Rooftop goes to confession to expunge his sins, especially his adultery, but instead of the priest he'd known in his childhood, he gets Father Lux, an embittered and apathetic cleric who'd lost his legs and his faith – and who also hates African-Americans. Gradually all the characters are introduced and interact in various ways...and Our Lady's true theme is revealed.