In About Clarence & Me, a new two-hander playing at Theater for the New City as part of the Dream Up Festival, Clarence Walker (DeMone), a black retiree in his 70s, seeks to realize an unfulfilled dream by taking piano lessons from Sam (Max Roll), a young white composer-teacher. After a rough start, the two form a deep if somewhat guarded friendship that helps carry them through the vicissitudes of both their lives – for Clarence, aging and infirmity, and for Sam, a love relationship challenged and ultimately broken by his devotion to his art.
This warmhearted sort of story can easily slip into overcooked sentimentality. But with a sensitive script by director Walter Jones and composer Scott Hiltzik, whose own piano compositions stand in for Sam’s, the actors stay true to the melody. The result is a touching tribute to the power of both art and friendship across generations and cultural boundaries.
Yes, it’s sentimental, and rather predictable. There’s a moment of musical triumph for Clarence. There’s character growth for Sam, thanks in part to the older man’s influence. There’s a tear-stained ending. But DeMone easily transcends what could have been a boisterous and gravel-voiced stereotype to steer an able Roll and a willing audience safely around the dangerous curves.
Clarence has wonderful spotlight scenes. During an exercise, he imagines himself playing the piano in church. He shows Sam how he sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a centenarian neighbor’s funeral. He tells a tale of Louisiana juke-joint violence that sounds like a legend, but turns out to be a real memory of an event that set the course of his life. Finally, when Sam has at last invited him to perform with his other students, a heartbroken Clarence addresses the recital audience almost too quietly to hear, then overcomes his limited instrumental talent to pour his whole heart into a Beethoven piece.
Looked at objectively, the musical side of the story doesn’t quite pass the reality test. Clarence arrives for his first lesson already able to play a basic boogie-woogie bass line and accompany himself with the chords to “Silent Night,” yet after years of study with Sam he seems to have made little progress technique-wise.
That may be part of the point, though. As he tells Sam, not only your music but “your whole life has got to be in harmony.” Clarence recognizes that for his teacher, who “always wanted to be creating something,” music is too all-encompassing. Sam complains that his girlfriend “doesn’t hear what I’m saying. I work hard, putting my heart and soul into music. Just by listening to Beethoven, don’t you feel like you know him?…Don’t you feel that underneath all that bluster there’s a sensitive guy? What more do you need to know? Isn’t that enough?”
But of course, it’s not.
The script’s tender realism and DeMone’s marvelous performance steer his Clarence safely clear of the distasteful “magical negro” construct he could have become. Indeed, the old man dispenses distrust and rage along with the wisdom gained from a long life of hard work. With a bitter shrug he recounts a youthful, more-or-less inevitable brush with the law – “I was a Colored Man in L.A. in the forties and fifties.” Then he references the Rodney King beating – the action takes place in Los Angeles in the early 1990s – and lectures his young teacher: “It’s still going on. No, you don’t know. You don’t get it.”
Whether it’s L.A. in the ’90s or Baltimore, Cleveland, or New York City in 2016, it sure is still going on. Fortunately, we have stories like About Clarence & Me to remind us, through the lens of art, of the universality of the human experience and the power of friendship and love. It runs until September 6. Tickets – at Theater for the New City’s notably low prices – are available through the Dream Up Festival website or by calling 212-254-1109.