Before opening night, Henry Lawrence seemed a bit equivocal about "Not Our Time," a new play about a year in his life as a Manatee County high school football player. He liked it, he said, but he called it "a start" and suggested that it needed some tweaking.
When the play got its first full staging Thursday night, almost no one seemed equivocal. People in the audience cheered and gasped as the story of Lawrence's struggle against racism unfolded, and most of them shot to their feet at the play's end and gave it a standing ovation.
"Not Our Time" comes from local playwright Bernard Yanelli. He's a history teacher at Bradenton's Saint Stephen's Episcopal School and a frequent winner of local playwriting competitions. He won the 2014 Players New Plays Festival with "Not Our Time." It was presented in a reading then. The winning play from the each year's festival gets a full production at the of the Players' season. So this is the time for "Not Our Time."
Lawrence was a football star at his segregated high school, but his career was literally sidelined when integration forced him to play for a racist coach in his senior year.
But Lawrence persevered and became an NFL star, and a key player on two Super Bowl championship teams.
"Not Our Time" starts at the end of Lawrence's junior season, as he and his teammates celebrate their third straight undefeated season, and progresses through his disastrous season at his new school.
Yanelli produces solid characterizations that eschew stereotypes -- the good guys have flaws, the bad guys have redeeming qualities -- and tells Lawrence's story in a compelling way, even though most people in the audience will know the ending.
There are times when the pace slows. Yanelli's passion for teaching history sometimes outshines his passion for creating compelling theater, and he bogs the script with unnecessary historical background and trivia. And some of the characters undergo transformations that seem unnatural.
The Players' production features strong acting from almost everyone in the eight-person cast, especially from Terrance Jackson as Lawrence and Jean-Paul Monde as his best friend and Dylan Jones as the quarterback of the white school.
Director Carole Kleinberg provides a pleasing pace and flow, and some really believable fight scenes.
If, as Henry Lawrence himself commented, the show is just "a start," it's a strong one. It's not without its dramatic and theatrical problems, but it's so solid that people cheer out loud for its protagonists. And maybe they even learn a little about the evolution of contemporary racism from watching Yanelli's take on what happened in Manatee County nearly a half-century ago.
Details: Through Aug. 23, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $15. Information: 941-365-2494, theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.