In this day and age where there is an ongoing debate about whether athletes should speak out or just “stick to sports”, Ball & Chain is a fresh reminder that navigating the gauntlet of challenges and temptations placed in front of sports stars is much more than stepping on the court and putting on a show. Directed by Senior and First Wave Scholar, Tiffany Ike, the play is a look into the dimensions of pressures and identities that weigh on black youth through the lens of a high-profile athlete.
For Deandre Washington (played by Denzel Taylor, Cortez de la Cruz, and Kenneth Jackson) ,the main character in Tiffany Ike’s Ball & Chain, basketball is everything. As the star player of the Freeman Racoons, he has been on a trajectory that is leading to the NBA Draft with a national championship now on his resume. This is his chance to attain the dream he has had since he could walk. He is tight with Coach Price, has a great girlfriend who happens to be the Coach’s daughter Amy, and his best friend Jimmy is riding with him until the wheels fall off. However, Deandre learns that for all the long hours of hard work and pile of sacrifices, his dream and humanity can be taken away all too quickly. After choosing to forgo the draft, Deandre’s bond with his coach strains as does his relationship with Amy. Deandre then meets the beautiful Rose who gives him genuine affection beyond the basketball player persona. He breaks up with Amy to her parents’ dismay, and starts getting serious with Rose. In a huge twist, Jimmy is killed and Deandre is heartbroken, only to be brought in as a suspect and put in jail. Coach Price bails his player out, but only as a chip to use in an effort to control the hoop star. Deandre is shocked and hurt that the man who he trusted as a near second father would betray him. To add insult to injury, Deandre enters a court of a different kind and finds Amy testifying against him. The play ends with the media analyzing this sharp fall from grace for Deandre and slips in the mention that an unnamed black woman was shot and killed.
Ike’s innovative concept of having three actors play one character not only gave an immediate unique and attention grabbing aesthetic, but also allowed for the audience to see that black athletes are put into the same box even with different physical features and personalities. Ike explained in the post-performance Q&A that the three Deandres were established to display the complexities of black men. Taylor portrayed the main Deandre Washington throughout the play and conveyed all of his actual actions, thoughts, and decisions. de la Cruz acted as Deandre’s blackness and was more vocal in moments where he recognized how his race played a part in his existence. de la Cruz’s highlight moment had to be his monologue portraying a young Deandre while Taylor switched to the character of Deandre’s father who entered the play for the first time. Jackson represented the masculine moments of Deandre and was especially prevalent in the scenes that had to do with his emotions and romantic endeavors. The reality in the scene where Jackson is talking about Deandre’s courtship of Amy, Coach Price’s daughter, and tells Taylor “Be the catch she can’t pass up. Be the cash she can’t pass up” is a prime example of the wordplay in Ike’s writing and consciousness of the black body in relation to white women. Ike’s purpose was to address and break down the idea that black men are not allowed to be dynamic in the eyes of mainstream society and the actors did a great job expressing these diverse qualities within Deandre.
Jasmine Kiah (Sophomore and First Wave Scholar) was arguably the best performer of the night. Kiah’s talent and work ethic had her take on all black femme roles in the play: Shirley Washington, (Deandre’s mother), Ms. Jackson (Deandre’s teacher), Rose (Deandre’s new love interest), as well as the narrator in the play’s opening sequence. Ike purposefully wanted one person to play all of the black femme characters in the play to highlight the expectation placed on black women to be everything for everyone. Kiah took this challenge in stride with the particular mannerisms, physicality, and vernacular she gave to make each character distinct. She spoke in the Q&A on how she would record herself and then play it back to hear the inflections and perfect them. This work absolutely paid off as Kiah shined in each and every role throughout Ball & Chain.
Ike took many unique choices within this piece. The cast was dressed in all black upon a black backdrop. She did not have any white people play characters as the actors made people like Coach Price, Amy Price, Susan Price, and the reporters and police officers come to life. This was an examination on how much space white people take up in black spaces, even when they are not occupying any physical space. There were unique transitions with poetic moments sprinkled into the play. One of the standout lines being, “When a white girl could take your last name, you start to wonder who took it first”, and the beautiful refrain that played during each set change. Ike explained that the song was in Ebo and translates to “Say Her Name”. The staging and scene setups, managed by Senior Noah Baron and Junior Quaan Logan were well done with one of the most telling moments being when Deandre (Taylor) sits in a chair under a spotlight in the center with the rest of the stage blacked out. Deandre is being interviewed about winning the National Championship and getting questioned about the NBA Draft in the beginning of the play. Towards the end, Deandre is then placed in an interrogation room and vigorously questioned about his involvement and/or knowledge with the death of his best friend, Jimmy. It is the same physical setting and lighting in both instances which displays the journey of how the spotlight is only on black men when they have a ball or in chains.
The play debuted at the Overture earlier in the year, but its messages and moments displaying the complexities of race, love, and masculinity are transcendent and continue to become more prevalent in this political climate. The moment where tears were shed was when Deandre is out shooting buckets in the backyard, trying to put all pain in the basket, which is how he normally deals with anything on his mind. However, coping with Jimmy’s death, Amy testifying against him, and the pressures upon him turn too much. Jackson and de la Cruz console Taylor and deliver the line “We can ball, but now let’s fall”. This honest examination of black masculinity throughout the play paired with conveying the rarely shown image of black men being vulnerable with one another was extremely impactful and showed that sports can be a conduit for so much more. With Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the unarmed black and brown people brutally murdered by police and sparking dozens of NFL protests, it is clear that the platform and public attention athletes hold can be used as a way to make change or a way to lose one’s identity crumble under the pressure. Ball & Chain is about far more than a basketball player trying to make it out.
I definitely had high expectations for the display put on by the Campus Women’s Center, but Ball & Chain is a revelation to behold. The intention and circularity of Ike’s writing fill the show with artistic gems at every turn and is even further emphasized by the acting choices of the charismatic cast. It is one of those pieces that makes the audience work. I am excited to see the heights that Ike and Ball & Chain can reach.