Bless These Hands

There is thunder rolling in the distance. Uncle Nick sits out on the front stoop, arms pulled into his body. He has never looked so thin. Mike Money by his side, unable to stay completely still. Junior just meters from them, but mentally a world apart. Marty stands still offstage. They are waiting for something. They are always waiting for something. 

The sky roils. Surely, there’s rain on the horizon. It just seems that it will never fall. 

That sense—that you and everyone around you is waiting to exhale—permeates every part of Marty and the Hands That Could, a new work from third-year MFA candidate Josh Wilder at the Yale School of Drama. Directed by Lucie Dawkins, it is part of the annual Carlotta Festival of New Plays, a year-end showcase of the program’s playwrights. One performance remains on May 16; tickets and more information here.   

When we meet Marty (Robert Hart), he is on the hopeful lip of his 25th birthday, and leaving prison for what isn’t the first time. He knows the drill: you leave, you slip up, you end up back in jail with more time on your record. You learn a loneliness that aches from the inside out.

But this time is going to be different: he isn’t messing up again. He’s been writing, delicate pages and pages with those big, masterful hands of his, and those pages are going to get him through. He is safe in those words. Homeward bound, pulled with a magnetic force toward his father Mike (Brandon E. Burton), kindly but strung out Uncle Nick (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), cousin Junior (Jakeem Powell) who is at war with his own demons, and Aunt Neet (Ciara Monique McMillian). And when he arrives, his mother (Adrienne Wells) will be there to pray over him. Because it’s tradition. 

The problem is, there are stumbling stones everywhere. On the front stoop of 5825 Manton Street, where the safety of Neet’s doorway collides with the outside world. Down the sidewalk and around the corner at the Papi Store. At every shop that takes a job application and some that don't. Even Point Breeze, the South Philly neighborhood where the play is set, becomes a sort of stumbling stone as it blooms around Marty, itself a complicated character in this story of self-reinvention and the systems of oppression that stifle it.

In this sense, Marty and the Hands That Could is a contemporary retelling of the Sisyphus myth: a man who is looking ever skyward rolls his boulder up a hill, reaches the top, and then watches it roll back down , knowing he must start the process again. It’s punishment for an attempt long ago to get ahead in life. Except our Sisyphus—or maybe Sisyphi—is the victim of a system that is so fundamentally broken, and so stacked against him, that he hasn’t just fallen back down the hill with his boulder. He’s been pushed to stay close to the ground. 

His story doesn’t stop there. How could it? Our Sisyphus is part of a family, and the family is part of a community, and the community is part of a demographic that has been painted with far too broad a brush, vilified too many times to count.

Marty is not just Sisyphus but his entire universe: the kin that birthed and fed and raised him, the moments it went so wrong, the fixes that never came through. He shares his universe with the arbiter of his punishment: not Zeus, so much as a system that began with slavery, graduated to Jim Crow, and has continued with the War on Drugs through five decades, nine U.S. presidents, and hundreds of American cities.

For the punch it packs—and it does, over and over again—Marty and the Hands That Could is also a work of extraordinary beauty. The script is baptized in poetry, written in whip-smart, conversational verse that coasts over the audience with music in each word. Maybe there is hopelessness here, but there is also room for hope, joy, humor, and myth, and for multiple redemption narratives that never so much as step foot in a church

This is the magic of the play, and of the playwright. Wilder is a world-builder: he marries fantastical elements and common places—front stoops, corner stores, kitchens piping hot with fresh breakfast—to make us see our realities with new eyes. On the stage, everyday objects take on mythical meaning: a child who is never just a child, a book that is never just a book, those clouds that will never let loose what is inside them. A stoop may be transformed into a spiritual realm with so much as a hymn, but it’s still the street at the end of the day.

It is a work as much about collective trauma as it is about importance of giving Black storytellers the stages and the space to tell these stories. On their Point Breeze stoop, the cast is careful with Wilder’s words, and aware of the power they wield. In Marty, Hart finds immense compassion but also immense fear, reaching deep into himself to pull out something fierce and wild and ambitious, a character for whom it is impossible not to root. Powell is a gut-wrenching Junior, his most Sisyphean as he falls from grace for a crime he cannot account for. As Tan, Adrienne Wells tells a story of redemption, bound up in white clothes and a church hat. 

Then there is Neet, the thing that holds the family and the show together. McMillian brings us to our knees. Maybe she is the aunt you had growing up, who held everything in place while the world dissolved around her. Maybe she is the not-quite-grandmother who helping you with your kids, because you were not ready to do it alone. Or your mother that time she got really close to your face and told you to suck it up, because she was done. She is New Haven’s Miss Dora Lee Brown and Flo Caldwell, and she isn’t going to quit because it’s just not what she does.

In spinning data into myth, and myth into art, Wilder tells us to stop missing this story. Or, stop assuming we already know the details. And so we look a little closer. We root for Marty—not just that he will “keep going to the top,” but that he can stay there when he arrives. That the boulder will stop rolling, and freeze right where it is.