Portrayed as a theatrical mini-series, The Numbers Game, presented by The Pulp Collective in association with Storefront Arts Initiative, combines the addicting elements of multi-episode shows with the raw in-person performance of live theatre. This production is split into six episodes (showing two at a time) and spread across a six-week period, which I have the pleasure of following. (Don’t forget to stay tuned for reviews of the next episodes!)
Set during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, The Numbers Game follows the growing conflict in post-segregated America between Queenie St. Clair (Karine Ricard), the self-proclaimed Queen of the Harlem Streets, and Dutch Schultz “The Dutchman” (Jamie Cavanagh), a merciless gang leader hungrily chasing down the latest gambling rig. Episode 1 & 2 help set the stage: Queenie revers in Harlem’s Renaissance and her neighbourhood’s prosperity with her secret lover Catherine Odium (Celia Aloma). Meanwhile, Dutch, who struggles to collect mob-payments on his own turf, learns about a great “investment opportunity” from Abbadabba Berman (James McDougall) involving the Harlem “Numbers Game” (roll credits).
The game reflects, with historical accuracy, the illegal lottery phenomenon that occurred in the poor neighbourhoods of the United States, where the bettors would attempt to pick three digits to match those that would be randomly drawn the following day. The catch, however, is that Queenie already runs a numbers-operation. If Dutch wants in on the goldmine, he has to declare a full-on war. Meanwhile, Bumpy Johnson (Ngabo Nabea), a white-hating, ex-convict makes his way from the bottom of the food chain to becoming Queenie’s right-hand man. As violence breaks down and blood runs through the streets of Harlem, who will the citizens turn to for maintenance of order? Will they join Queenie’s (Black Lives Matter) army or will they seek to make a profit under Dutch’s invading rule? I guess we’ll have to wait to find out.
As opposed to filmed series that have the luxury of budget, space, and time for their sets, this production efficiently makes use of four blocks, a projector, and projection screens to help set the place and mood. Costumes, on the other hand, are spot on and as good as (if not better than) any ’30s-based Hollywood counterpart.
One thing that really stood out (and maybe for myself more than other audience members, as I was sitting in the front row) was the phenomenal body-control each actor exhibited. Of particular exaltation, were these two moments: in one scene, Dutch grabbed Abbadabba by the gonads as a threatening measure, and I swear I saw actual beads of sweat run down McDougall’s face. In another scene, when Dutch was choking his henchman, Hub Hewlett (Dwain Murphy), Murphy’s face turned an angry, blood-rushed tone of scarlet.
Directed by Benjamin Blais, The Numbers Game runs at the Storefront Theatre until Nov 6. For more information, visit http://pulpcollective.ca/numbers-game/. Stay tuned for our next review of episodes 3 and 4.