In the theater as in life, there's a fine line between mystery and confusion. John ADEkoje's "Six Rounds / Six Lessons" sometimes lands on the wrong side of that line, frustrating us with opacity rather than tantalizing us with enigmas. Even so, this "tragicomic hip-hop concerto" casts a powerful enough spell to leave us hoping that, as Company One declares in its program notes, it is still a work in progress -- and one that will find its way to full expression.
ADEkoje, a Nigerian-born playwright who now lives in Boston, has been developing "Six Rounds" with the company and with Boston director Lois Roach . It's great to see a small theater supporting new work and giving it a showcase, as Company One is doing with this premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts.
But for starters, ADEkoje needs to decide whose story he's telling in this absorbing but sometimes incoherent play. At first we think it's centered on Moses, an older man with a saxophone who tells us that, after asking his ancestors for guidance, he was given "six rounds for six lessons": six lifetimes in which to learn and grow. He has been preceded onstage by a genial "DJ/Referee," who's warned us that this is an "interactive" show, and by a hip-hop chorus of "Kids," clapping and singing, "Dad, we miss you."
OK. So Moses runs us through a brief recap of his lives -- as a Yoruba prince, a Georgia field hand, a Tuskegee Airman, and so on down to the present, in which he is a remorseful drunk. But then, unexpectedly, the focus shifts, and we gradually realize that the "six rounds" belong not to Moses but to his younger son, Ace. Aha: It's Ace's picture that's framed in flowers on a pole as we walk in; those are Ace's boxing gloves hanging there; it's Ace who will step into the red-roped boxing ring that dominates the stage.
But Moses steps in, too. So do his wife, Rebekah; his other children, Solo and Trisha; and Ace's beloved, Amy. The story builds in fragments, punctuated by more singing and dancing from the Kids (played by the same actors who portray Moses' s family). Eventually it all makes sense, more or less, but the initial blurring of focus gets us off on the wrong foot.
That blur is clearly intentional, at least in part; ADEkoje wants to address the powerful and painful theme of fatherhood in African-American history, maimed and distorted as it has been by slavery, oppression, and loss. And there are moments when this theme sings through with devastating force. But it would be even more powerful if we were given a clearer map of the territory, a guiding hand to steer us as the bits of history coalesce into one man's story.
Roach brings energy and passion to this production, and she has a fine young cast. James Milord has a tragic dignity as Ace, nicely offset by Keith Mascoll's giddily enthusiastic DJ, Wesley Lawrence Taylor's weary Moses, and Jason Bowen's raging Solo. The women, too -- mother Juanita Rodrigues , sister Karimah S. Moreland, and partner Terri Deletetsky -- create strong, individual portraits of the women who love these men.
The "interactive" element is more problematic. The chorus almost immediately exhorts the audience to join in, clapping and shouting; the demand comes too early in the show, before the performers have established a bond of trust and communication. People are often happy to clap, but they generally like to know what they're clapping for.
The good news is that, with the kind of time and hard work Company One is apparently willing to invest, "Six Rounds / Six Lessons" could develop into something worth plenty of applause.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.