As a reviewer, it is my job to be unbiased and objective in my opinions. In the case of Beyond the Stratosphere, currently in production by the Oklahoma City Theater Company at the Civic Center Music Hall CitySpace Theatre, it would seem on the surface that I might be incapable of maintaining my objectivity, for two reasons. First, the playwright, La’Charles Purvey, is a very close friend of mine, like a brother in fact. Second, I was part of the original cast of Beyond the Stratosphere, in which I portrayed Dunk. Besides the fact that the two reasons would effectively cancel each other out (one might slant me towards it while the other might bias me against it), there is yet a third reason that I was able to take on this task with absolute objectivity: The current production of Beyond the Stratosphere is completely unique, fresh, and unlike my own Stratosphere experience, yet it remains true to the story while upping the emotional ante with stellar performances across the board. Before getting into the particulars, let me make a painful admission: This version of Stratosphere is a better production than the one in which I was involved. There, I said it.
The story revolves around five men infected with the HIV virus in 1992 and perfectly captures the essence of the era, including the stigma associated with the then-mysterious virus that was primarily thought to be a “gay disease.” That misconception is tackled head on in Stratosphere, with each of these men coming from vastly different walks of life. Led by a PhD candidate, Scotty Young (played brilliantly by Jerrod Mitchell), who is himself infected with the virus, the group consists of enterprising teen and aspiring astronomer Mixtape Boy (G’Angelo Peterson), ex-con and street hustler Dunk (BC Randolph), drag queen Sunday Mourning and her male alter ego Reggie (Phillip Rideout II), and gospel comedian Demetrious “D” Little (Thonie Lee).
Augmenting the cast of men superbly are “Scotty’s Fine White Girlfriend” social worker Penny (Alicia Ann Working) and prostitute/”actress” January (Amara Brady), Mixtape Boy’s mom, whose reckless living and addiction resulted in her son’s affliction, a fact she laments without ever fully acknowledging responsibility.
There are no weak links in the cast of Stratosphere, each a shining star in an immaculately constructed constellation worthy of gazing upon through Mixtape Boy’s binoculars. Standout performances are given by Randolph as the street savvy Dunk, who is bold enough to confront the Almighty and accuse him of traits Dunk ironically possesses himself, and Peterson as Mixtape Boy, who maintains an inextinguishable optimism despite the odds stacked heavily against him at every turn. Thonie Lee does a remarkable job as D. Little, who also maintains an unlikely optimism, although his is not rooted in reality and ultimately appears to be little more than veiled denial fueled by religious zeal. Lee’s performance is even more noteworthy considering he was a late addition to the cast, replacing Ron Marshall midway through the run. Though playing a drag queen is not a stretch for Rideout, a real-life self-described female impersonator whose alter ego is Gizele Monae, Rideout brings Sunday Mourning to life in a way that makes us believe in her history and pain. Brady conveys January’s cynicism and indifference to near perfection, yet lets her empathy shine through just enough to let us feel her humanity. Working provides balance as Penny, and makes us believe in the love she has for Scotty, as well as the frustration she experiences with his lack of fortitude. For his part, Mitchell, as Scotty, is the perfect referee, diverting attention from himself to those whom he selflessly serves, separating the players like prizefighters when low blows are thrown, but letting them duke it out when necessary, while inwardly losing his own battle at the same time. Together, the group embarks on a roller coaster ride for which none of them signed up, and takes us along for every twist, turn, slow climb and steep drop.
Surprisingly, despite the dark subject matter, Beyond the Stratosphere is a holiday story that warms our hearts and inspires hope, reconciliation and resolve to all, not just those fighting against the plight afflicting the men (and woman) of Stratosphere. Only two opportunities remain to see this masterpiece, December 29th and 30th at 8pm. Don’t miss this incredible performance, as Purvey and his brilliant story are undoubtedly headed for galactic heights in the future. Kudos to director Callison Coburn for a fresh, original interpretation of a great script, and to the cast and crew of Stratosphere for a job well done.
Get tickets online at okcciviccenter.com or in person at the Civic Center Music Hall box office.