This review of Chesney Snow's The Unwritten Law at Dixon Place was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Unwritten Law
Written & Performed by Chesney Snow
Direction & Choreography by Rebecca Arends
Co-Created by Chesney Snow & Rebecca Arends
Production Management by Joe Flowers
Visual Design by Emre Emirgil
Lighting Design by Ro-z Edelston
161-A Chrystie Street
New York, New York 10002
"The Unwritten Law" are social norms you are expected to follow. If you disobey them, you can expect an extreme and potentially violent reaction by some members of your community. For every gender, ethnic, racial and/or religious group, the social norms differ. In a conservative Muslim country, the unwritten law might be that a woman should not dress too immodestly. An effeminate man in America might need to "butch it up" in some settings. For a black man in America fifty years ago, it might mean not walking down the street with a white woman, or in the case of Chesney Snow's relative Charles, the offense was for having the audacity to shoot back after being attacked by Klan members in the middle of the night. The punishment, of course, is death.
Chesney Snow, a well-spoken African-American young man, has overcome many obstacles in his life. His gutsy, visceral performance brought tears to his eyes as he relayed major turning points in his life. He discussed the trials and tribulations of his mother and how over decades of injustice and reconciliation, his family has made marginal socio-economic gains which have been achieved through hard work. That is especially evident in the life of Chesney Snow, which is told in this show through narration, poetry, dance, and live music. Before he starts to tell his own story, he takes a bit of a winding road approach I don't think was altogether necessary. But the stories he told were interesting and revealing. He was delightfully aided in that by the talented interpretive dancers Rebecca Arends and Winston Dynamite Brown with pianist A.J. Khaw, and cellist, Varuni Tiruchelvam.
The story of his mother was particularly moving. At age 17, his mom lies almost dying on the sidewalk but through an indomitable spirit that would characterize much of his and her life, she gets up and lives to have him three years later in 1979 when she is age 20. His mom is the true heroine of this story. Through near Herculean effort, she carried her family on her shoulders. She worked in a Nursing Home where she endured "endless days and nights of wiping asses, bathing and feeding elderly patients" including one old man who tormented her with egregious insults. When he realized she was pregnant, his mom told him it was her intention to name her son after him. He then broke down, cried and apologized to her for enduring years of his abusive behavior. Chesney relates having gone through "grade school hell" because of his name. Because his father was pursuing a career in radio, money was coming in slow, and when Mr. Swift refused to get "a real job," his mom took him to Chicago where she met "Michael, the Eiffel" (so nicknamed because he was tall). His little sister is born, and everything seems blissful until young Chesney realizes his mother is being beaten and that drugs are a constant curse. Chesney stands up to Michael one day during one of his mother's beatings by smashing him in the leg with a hammer. They leave temporarily for Mississippi, but after a brief return to Chicago, his mother decides enough is enough when she discovers Michael has touched Jackie, Chesney's six-year-old sister.
Chesney reflects that his mother must have endured those beatings for him and his sister, and it serves again to show how strong a woman she was. For the next five years, Chesney and Jackie live with GG, his grandmother, who he describes as being so tough and no nonsense that she once shot her own drunken sister in the ass. This is also when Chesney began to beatbox, an art form where the performer replicates the sound of percussion by using one's mouth, lips, tongue, and voice. With his cousin Bobby, they began to perform publicly. Bobby may have had the voice of an angel, Chesney remarks, but he was also brought down by muscular dystrophy. The last steps he would take were to GG's house where she would love and feed him while they made music. Things pick up for a little while for Chesney and his family when his father finally earns some money and renown in Oklahoma City as a radio show host. Chesney spent some time with dad, and after five years, his mother returns with a new man, Jessie. Unfortunately, the good times did not last. Jessie pulls a gun on Chesney's mom, and thanks to a scream by Jackie, the family is able to escape. They end up living in a small town in Wisconsin, where they are the only black family in the neighborhood.
Adjusting to that new life wasn't easy. At first the kids gave him a hard time, but eventually, the community welcomed him especially because of his musical skills. Perpetuating the patterns and choices that stand in the way of breaking out of one's socioeconomic class, at sixteen years old, Chesney gets his girlfriend pregnant and realizes he has failed his mom. He calls his dad for help only to learn that his dad has been arrested. Chesney does everything he can to get custody of his son Deron, but a couple of slip-ups with fighting at school and a failed marijuana test result in his son going to live with his baby momma's trailer park grandma. His argument that his own mother bought a house wasn't enough to sway the custody decision in his favor. He would spend the next seven years trying to rescue Deron from this hell but Deron would only disappear further into the abyss of Child Services after Chesney tried to take him, without permission, across state lines. After five more unsuccessful years, Chesney begins grinding with what he does best, beatboxing until he begins to make Off-Broadway performances in 2010 and receives a cryptic e-mail from someone claiming to be Deron.
The Unwritten Law shares a heartfelt story of one person's life. It presents the challenges Chesney Snow faced in his struggle to rise up and achieve. The heroine of the story, his mom, played an ample role in the way the drama of his life played out and perhaps she deserves more credit than he gave her. Few people face such difficult circumstances and I think it's inspiring to see how hard Chesney has worked to make a name for himself. Has he found his son? He didn't say. Perhaps that is part of the purpose of this performance. There are a couple of times Chesney showed off not only his skills to rhyme and twist words but also to beatbox and rap. It was a unique performance and a definite treat. Chesney Snow is an entertaining storyteller and he raises plenty of issues for the audience to contemplate. You can catch The Unwritten Law at Dixon Place from July 30-August 14, 2017. To get tickets, call 212-219-0736 or go to www.dixonplace.org