Heavy Like the Weight of a Flame

"I'm not going home. I'm going on," may be the final revelation in R. Ernie Silva's one-man show, "Heavy Like the Weight of a Flame," but to really understand the emotional struggles and self-reflection this actor faced in creating this piece, you would have to have witnessed his recent four-day run at La Mama in New York's East Village. The story, aside from a few theatrical embellishments, is not only an excellent staged piece. It is a retelling of Silva's first twenty-some years of life, told by a man a decade wiser, a decade more refined.

We all have coming-of-age stories. As we grow older, we tend to mythologize them. For many of us, it meant graduating high school into college into the workforce -- a straight trajectory with variation only within the structure. Then there are the mythologies of men like Silva, who, growing up a half-black, half-Puerto Rican kid with two taunting older brothers and a domineering mother in Flatbush Gardens, turned to two muses in his attempt at developing his imagination in a city with room for none: books and an acoustic guitar. A teenager in the golden era of hip-hop, he also listened to PJ Harvey and the Sex Pistols, read Kerouac in a family whose pastimes involved dice throwing and, sadly for his two brothers, heroin.

Where Silva excels is not just in his excellent presentation of each character, but also in his comprehension of the underlying symbolism of his history. Throwing dice was not just a street corner hustle; it became the sagely rolling of bones in Taoist philosophy, in which his "1, 2, 3" and "4, 5, 6" became the flipping of sixes and nines in the I Ching. It would have been interesting for him to make that Taoist connection with Hendrix's song, "If Six Was Nine," as Jimi was a huge influence on him. (Silva is currently being filmed as that legendary guitarist in an upcoming movie, "Darnell Dawkins: Mouth Guitar Legend.")

In the I Ching, you roll things like yarrow sticks and then use a system of numerology to "foretell" the future. After one reading, you take all the sixes and all the nines and flip them, which gives you an alternate reading. What this really means is that instead of "determining" the future, the possibilities are revealed. After his first brother dies in prison from an overdose, Silva rolls his dice and witnesses the possibilities of boxcar travel. Despite a saddened mother, who uses the biblical warning of not being burned from the inside out to measure "the weight of a flame" inside of himself, he hops aboard his first ride.

The "coming of age" happens during his travels around America jumping on and off freight trains, become part of a little represented subculture in this country. Glorified by writers like Kerouac a half-century ago, Silva helped keep this tradition alive until, many months later, he mouths off to a mullet-wearing security guard in a Wichita, Kansas "Tal-Mart," and is thrown in jail due to the dime bag in his back pocket. This episode reminded him of the time his crew was surrounded by a dozen machine gun holding cops when he was twelve, when his only crime was walking around Fourteenth St with candy.

That's part of the layering of Heavy: the struggle for identity in an age of racist cops, an over-secure mother, and two brothers who treated Silva's hippie tendencies as a sign that he wasn't "black enough." Silva's ability to wrap the universal into the individual, the cultural into the communal, is brilliant. The use of minimal lighting design and maximum facial expressions has helped the actor create a piece that keeps you guessing, and laughing, and most importantly, being inspired for the duration of its seventy-five minutes.

That is what we most ask of theater: to remind of us our personal mythologies, to ask us to keep in mind that while the form of our struggles is particular, the essence -- that we all struggle and suffer or struggle and rise -- is a shared experience. Having garnered Silva an LA Weekly nomination for "Best Solo Performance" after his successful run at the Odyssey Theatre, I feel comfortable in saying this was an introduction and not the curtain call of this exceptional play on New York stages.