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Avery Sharpe is having the kind of season that most theater artists only fantasize about. The actor turned playwright just completed starring in a sold-out run of Black Nerd at Dad’s Garage, and now his new play Woke has just opened at Essential Theatre. It’s a terrific work, too — one of the best the company has ever staged. 

A co-winner of the 2018 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award along with Built to Float, Woke (running at the West End Performing Arts Center through August 26) marks the debut of a bold, confident voice. With his first play, Sharpe seems to have a natural gift for storytelling and for the way people talk and interact with each other. 

It’s the spring of 2016 in an unnamed suburb outside Atlanta. Adrian (Derrick Robertson) and Jesse (Paul Danner) have been best friends since 7th grade. Often inseparable, they bicker back and forth over the merits of Kendrick Lamar versus Eminem. Jesse jokingly accuses Adrian of being the whitest black guy he’s ever met. Adrian has a great relationship with Jesse’s mother Martha (Kathleen Wattis Kettrey) and father Frank (Fred Galyean) as well. The two teenagers are about to graduate high school and embark on college life, with Jesse attending Dartmouth and Adrian staying local and going to Morehouse. 

While Martha is sleeping, the two invite a pair of young women from high school over — Tanisha (DeShon Green) and Natasha (Karina Simmons). Jesse and Tanisha are in the initial stages of dating, and there seems to be an attraction between Adrian and Natasha as well, but Adrian shies away from that, for his own reasons. 

Over dinner one night, the dynamic between the characters changes. Sad over the back-to-back police shootings of two young black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Adrian discusses his feelings with Jesse and Jesse’s parents. The parents are sympathetic but look at the situations with different eyes. Adrian looks at it as two men unnecessarily killed; the parents don’t see conclusive evidence the police did anything wrong. 

Martha expresses doubt that someone like Adrian would ever find himself in a similar situation; Adrian’s confused face registers a half-dozen emotions. It’s a masterfully written and directed (by Ellen McQueen) sequence, one that spirals downward quickly and threatens a number of relationships, including that of the two young men. 

Woke is a smart, richly written play, as well as one that feels — in Trumpian times — raw and topical. The central friendship is believable, and when it dissembles, it’s painful. Danner is a little stiff early on, but he really grows into the role. His Jesse is someone who realizes that he needs to change and be more alert. The character has to go through some self-reflection and have tough conversations with his parents and friends about race. 

Martha and Frank aren’t written as villains, but they clearly enjoy white privilege. Martha is a stay-at-home mother who shops, goes to Zumba classes and thinks nothing of ogling and trying to touch Tanisha’s hair. She and her husband voted for Obama and pat themselves on the back for being liberal and accepting but still cling to the belief that nothing bad happens to good people. 

McQueen has gathered a marvelous ensemble, with the standouts being Robertson and Green. Robertson nails every aspect of Adrian’s growing recognition of what is going on in the world around him, while Green has a chilling moment when Tanisha tells Jesse that being blind is the equivalent of being racist. 

The play has a few faults. Woke takes place entirely in the home of Jesse and his parents. Adrian’s parents are mentioned a few times, but they are never seen. Having them present would have given Woke even more depth. At times, too, Jesse’s awakening seems a little too pat and easy. 

Nonetheless, this excellent show should have plenty of future mountings. It has some humorous moments but at heart is a drama that deals with racism in a way that doesn’t slam either side. Woke wakes you up, slaps you in the face and demands that you pay attention to what is really going on the world — and pay attention as well to what the gifted Sharpe has in store next.

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