David Lamb *92’s play strikes a personal chord

Playwright David Lamb *92 quietly waited in the lobby of the Florence Gould Hall, an off-Broadway theater on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as another sold-out crowd gathered for his play, Platanos and Collard Greens, on a summer afternoon in July.

The audience, largely African-American and Latino, laughed loud and hard at the romantic comedy about two students at Hunter College: Freeman, an African-American, and Angelita, a Dominican whose mother tries to break up the young couple. The characters goof around with dating rituals and thoughts on “good hair.” Lamb has written an explosively funny play about the relationship between African-Americans and Latinos that has struck a personal chord with audiences. Infused with hip-hop and poetry, Platanos and Collard Greens, Lamb’s first play, explores the tensions between African-Americans and Dominicans and, says Lamb, the need to set aside their differences and stereotypes and participate in a political system that often does not represent their interests.

Lamb, who is African-American and grew up in a housing project in New York before attending Hunter College, was motivated to write the play because he noticed that some Dominicans denied their African heritage. “They had a different relationship to their African heritage than African-Americans did,” he said. A college internship with then-New York state assemblyman from the South Bronx (and now congressman) José E. Serrano piqued Lamb’s interest in black and Latino politics and encouraged Lamb to see that if African-Americans and Latinos work together they might be able to get candidates sympathetic to their views elected.

In the play, Angelita’s mother subverts the young couple’s love because she does not want her lighter-skinned daughter mixing with darker African-Americans. She has told her daughter to “stay out of the sun so you don’t look like those Haitians.” Latinos, says Freeman in the play, “try to pass for anything other than being of African descent.”

Platanos and Collard Greens started as a novel, Do Platanos Go Wit’ Collard Greens?,that Lamb self-published in 1994. The book led to speaking engagements at colleges. Some of the students he met with urged him to turn it into a play “because they were so struck at how accurately it captured their lives,” said Lamb, 40, who earned an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School and a law degree from New York University.

Lamb and his wife, Jamillah, a former banker, invested $20,000 to get the play off the ground, hiring Lamb’s former WWS roommate, Sevin Akbar *88 (aka Summer Hill Seven), as the director.

Platanos and Collard Greens premiered in 2003 in a 70-seat theater and today sells out nearly every performance in the 400-seat Florence Gould Hall. News of the play has spread largely through word of mouth, said Lamb. The play has an open-ended run. About 50,000 people have seen the play in New York theaters; another 50,000 college students have seen it as it tours campuses, including Princeton’s, where it was presented several years ago and might stop again this year.

A lawyer at a Wall Street law firm at the time he wrote his novel, Lamb later worked for the Low-Income Investment Fund, a community-development financial institution that works on creating affordable housing in New York City, before turning to playwriting fulltime four years ago.

Audience members connect on a personal level with the play’s themes, said Lamb. After one performance, he said, a Dominican mother who had come at her daughter’s urging was almost in tears because she recognized herself in the character of Angelita’s mother. “She didn’t like what she saw,” said Lamb.

Next up for Lamb is From Auction Block to Hip-Hop, a satire focusing on the selling of negative stereotypes of black, Latina, and Asian women in the hip-hop music industry, which previewed at the Florence Gould Hall in New York in August and will premiere next winter or spring. (Akbar is the director.) That play, like his first, uses humor to get his ideas across. Borrowing a quote from George Bernard Shaw, Lamb said, “If you are going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh.”