The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia isn’t known for doing volatile new material — it has the world’s largest subscription audience (56,000) and tends to present solid, middle-of-the-road musicals and plays. So, you could feel the tension in the audience at Sunday afternoon’s performance of the world premiere production of “The Eclectic Society,” an ambitious drama-comedy about the huge convulsions in American society during the 1960s.
The play is set on a Connecticut college campus in 1963, just a few weeks before JFK was assassinated and “the 1960s” — as we now know them — really began.
In his debut play, Eric Conger — who went to Wesleyan University — shows us how the conservatism we tend to associate with the 1950s lingered into the first few years of the following decade. You can see that fact reflected in the George Lucas film, “American Graffiti,” which takes place in 1962, but feels like a ’50s story.
“The Eclectic Society” takes place within a fraternity/literary society which is about to sponsor a young black student from Cleveland as a gesture to racial diversity — a sign that the organization is trying to change with the times. The frat already has one black member, Floyd Wiggins (Carl Clemons-Hopkins, above right), but he is a star athlete — in two sports — and is keeping a very low profile in terms of race.
Darrell Freeman (J. Alex Brinson, below) is a black street poet who is a few years ahead of his time in terms of his interests and his language.
By the late 1960s, Darrell would have been seen as a militant black activist/writer in the LeRoi Jones vein and would have been a star in the eyes of white campus activists at many Eastern universities.
Darrell finds a powerful enemy in the Eclectic Society in the form of Sean O’Dey (Paul Felder) who resents the fact that he has to help pay for Darrell’s lodgings and who may be an out-and-out racist.
Conger sets up a potent situation that explodes in Act Two — with a sensational scene in which Darrell lashes out at the fraternity brothers — but unfortunately the playwright defuses the climax with a twist that throws a wet blanket over the whole story.
Still, in this age of Obama — when we seem to have gone back to lots of veiled racism in public forums — it is electrifying to see the primal white/black conflict explored in a promising new play. The cast is outstanding, with special praise deserved by Paul Felder (above, center) who makes Sean so insidiously attractive and powerful (without tipping over into blatant anger).
It was clear “The Eclectic Society” went too far for the Walnut’s rather conservative subscription audience — the use of the F-word and a brief flash of nudity did not play well with the predominantly senior citizen crowd — but Conger deserves the chance to continue working on the piece at another venue.
(“The Eclectic Society” is running through March 7. For more information, visit www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org)