Race, class, privilege and identity are the not-so-subtle themes served to audiences at Lucy Thurber’s powerful new play, “Transfers,” now running at the MCC Theater. But a more subtle dialogue streams steadily below the surface: What, exactly, is home, and how does a person who is completely alone and marginalized by society find one?
These questions are central to the stories of two young men from the South Bronx, Clarence Matthews and Christofer Rodriguez, who are competing for scholarships at an elite New England university. Despite having grown up in the same neighborhood, they appear to be polar opposites – Christofer, a cocky Latino wrestling star and Clarence, a gay, African-American book worm. They are recruited by David DeSantos, a tireless employee at a nonprofit whose mission is to provide educational opportunities to disadvantaged students from low-income families.
The play opens in a cramped motel room in blustery western Massachusetts, where David (Glenn Davis), Clarence (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Christofer (Juan Castano) are spending the night and attempting to prepare for the interviews with faculty at the university the next day. David insists on staging mock interviews, and through the conflicts that result from this process, each character, at various points, has an emotional breakdown.
Much is revealed about the inner lives of the characters here. Christofer suffers from what appear to be panic attacks, social anxiety and depression, and Clarence has never fully recovered from a horrific childhood experience. Both feel invisible; both seem entirely on their own.
Thurber’s writing in these early scenes can feel forced and rushed, but as the play unfolds the pace slows, giving the actors more breathing room and a chance to sink into the roles. (And boy, do they ever sink in – Castano and Blankson-Wood in particular give stunning, heart-wrenching performances.) We never actually meet any of the students who attend Harrel University – although we do become acquainted with two faculty members, the women’s rugby coach, Rosie McNulty (a lively and charming performance by Samantha Soule), and Professor Leon Addison Brown (a commanding Geoffrey Dean) – but it is understood that Christofer and Clarence are outsiders here.
In the opening scenes the young men eye each other with suspicion and define their identities through their differences, but they can’t maintain that distance for long. Unexpectedly forced together in this intimate setting, they have no choice but to acknowledge the trauma they experienced as children in a neighborhood dominated by violent gangs and marked by devastating poverty. It’s easy to imagine that this is something they rarely, if ever, discuss with others. Somehow they managed to escape, but the trauma still hangs around them like a thick, isolating blanket that binds them together.
The second half of the play opens with the college interviews, two enormous, gorgeously written scenes that dig in deep. But whether Christofer or Clarence is ultimately accepted to the university is almost beside the point. After the entire ordeal, they are reunited back in New York. It is an awkward, fleeting and affecting meeting. “I see you,” Christofer says to Clarence. “And you see me, too.” For a brief moment, it feels like they are home.
Top Image: Glenn Davis, Juan Castano and Ato Blankson-Wood in MCC Theater’s “Transfers.” Photo by Joan Marcus.