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Stage Review: Pairings create bumpy ride in 'Boppin' with the Ancestors'

Monday, June 16, 2003

By Anna Rosenstein

In Rob Penney's "Boppin' with the Ancestors," everything seems to come in twos, although they don't always coexist comfortably. There are two owners, Masai and J.C., of the barbershop in which the action takes place. They are, somewhat vaguely, the reincarnations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The action begins when two young gangsters, WAC-B and DMF, burst into the shop while fleeing from police.

 
 
"Boppin' with the Ancestors"

Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre at Penn Theater, 4809 Penn Ave., Bloomfield-Garfield.

When: Through June 29; Fridays through Sundays, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $17.50-$15.00; 412-441-2213.

   
 

From these two pairs, Penney maps out two ways of life. The adults have a firm sense of history and cultural pride. The teens seethe with rage, are in love with violence and are oblivious to all things African. Yet, Penney isn't dismissive of any of his characters. In fact, between acts, the entire set is reversed, giving the audience an alternate viewpoint, so to speak.

Still, "Boppin' with the Ancestors" borders on being too idealistic. There's no question that the gangsters will be converted, gaining respect for their elders and finding pride in their heritage.

However, Penney doesn't allow "Boppin'" to become a simple sentimental drama. Instead, he infuses it with mysticism that provides a window into the history of African culture that's elemental to the script. It just feels like two different plays.

The characters of Masai and J.C., when they're not openly King and Malcolm X (which is most of the time) have little beyond the superficial in common with their spiritual alter egos, so it's easy to forget this framing dichotomy as the story unfolds. Another character, Jonesy, is really Harriet Tubman, and those two share even less. Jonesy is an ineffectual police officer with a tendency toward brutality who keeps popping in and doing nothing. In this production, she's dressed in oddly tight and suggestive clothing for no discernible reason.

The story occasionally weaves back and forth in time, but most scenes progress realistically. The few that don't feel out of place. WAC-B and DMF are converted not by the logic of the older men's arguments but by a mystical experience. Why all the heartfelt discussions if the protagonists are just going to use magic to turn the straying youth into believers? Audiences should be aware that, during this sequence, extended strobe lighting is used.

If the play can be a bit of a bumpy ride, the actors don't seem to mind. The new Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre is proving that it can put together a cast that can rock any house. Jay Jones, who shined in the company's production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," is all sizzling energy here as DMF. Violent and vulnerable, he manages to perform reprehensible actions without making his character hopelessly irredeemable.

Rico Parker, as WAC-B, matches Jones' force and lets us know his character is driven as much by fear and loss as anger. Wali Jamal (Masai/Martin) and Les Howard (J.C./Malcolm) don't offer mirror opposites of the younger actors. They're not all calm and logic. Their frustration and brief outbursts prove the teens' rage isn't implausible or without justification.

Director Mark Clayton Southers delves deeply to show both the hope and devastation of Penney's world. His stage brims with light and darkness, joy and sorrow, always the two sides, one with the other, interdependent and forever linked.


Anna Rosenstein is a freelance critic for the Post-Gazette.

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