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Stage Reviews: Black and white theater festival succeeds on many levels

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Race isn't totally taboo, but it still occasions plenty of evasion, even in theater, which is supposed to be one of the bolder arts.

Cheryl Young, left, and Allison Cahill star in "Half of Zero." (Penn Theater)
Click photo for larger image.


"Theatre Festival in Black and White"

Where: Penn Theatre, 4809 Penn Ave., Bloomfield/Garfield.

When: Group A, 7 p.m. Fri. and Sun.; Group B, 3 p.m. Sun.; Group C, 7 p.m. tonight and 3 p.m. Sat.; Group D, 7 p.m. Thurs. and Sat.

Tickets: $5; 412-441-2213

So congratulations to Mark Southers, artistic director and animating presence of the Penn Theatre, for a brave idea: a one-act festival that not only tackles issues of black and white head on, but does so in a designedly mixed-race mode.

It's a simple idea, really: Stage a dozen plays, half by black playwrights with white directors, the rest by white playwrights with black directors. Let the casting fall where the plays require (no color blind casting here, where race is so much a subject). Then scramble them together in three- or four-play groups presented four times each over two weeks.

Simple? Nothing's simple in staging so many plays in such a short time! But everyone seems to have pitched in, with playwrights sometimes doubling as directors and technicians as actors. In all the bustle of preparation, issues of race probably became secondary to the imperatives of theater. That's a heartening result by itself.

But I don't have to settle for congratulating Southers for a good idea boldly carried out, because this is a deluge of short plays that display lots of promise and some achievement. An undoubted sociological success, the festival is also a qualified success theatrically.

Of the 10 plays I saw, half are about 20 minutes long; two are shorter; three longer. Even with lengthy intermissions, most groups come in under two hours.

As with any such festival, some plays show sluggish lines and direction, but the spirit is infectious. The general level is comparable to the recently completed New Works Festival, with several plays better than that -- not surprisingly, those by the more established playwrights, Javon Johnson, Amy Hartman and Southers.

As to race, I know perfectly well it's a social construct without scientific basis. But that's the focus here -- on the perceived social divide between (in the simplest terms, which is how people usually apply it) black and white.

In some cases, I had no idea whether the playwright was black or white, which suggests how arbitrary these constructed social categories can be. Perhaps it's even more surprising that you can't always tell whether the playwright is male or female -- witness Southers' own four-chicks-talkin' comedy, "The Girls from Kankakee."

Group A: Laura J. Clark, "Robin Hood Holiday"; Lynne Wyant, "The Big Snow of 1950"; Amy Hartman, "Half of Zero"; Mark Southers, "The Girls From Kankakee."

This is doubtless the strongest group. "Robin Hood Holiday" is a simple parable in which an elderly black Salvation Army solicitor (an earthy, forceful Mayme Williams) works a guilt-inducing scam to extract a healthy contribution from a rich white doctor. A white librarian and a black janitor find common ground in the uneventful, poorly rehearsed "Big Snow."

The strength is in the second half. "Half of Zero" is a chilling story of a retarded woman gradually revealing the truth behind a recent murder. Cheryl Young is superb, given firm support by Allison Cahill. "Girls from Kankakee" is a ditsy comic outburst as three women try to talk a fourth out of a surprising marriage. The ending is unnecessarily soupy, but a well-directed quartet of Nialah Lewis, Brenda Marks, Monique Pappas and Eileen Morris seems to have as much fun as the audience.

Group B: Judy Meiksin, "Slam Dunk"; Javon Johnson, "Bones"; Dan Kirk, "The Letter."

"Slam Dunk" asks why a distinguished white professor (Ginger Lawrence) would publicly humiliate her prize black grad student (Vanessa German). It's a good idea with too little background to flesh it out. "Bones" is a 10-minute slice of enigmatic Faulknerian noir, with Lonzo Green as the reclusive Jake and Jeff Simpson as the bearer of terrible memories. "The Letter" is a cute marriage comedy that suddenly, arbitrarily turns bitter.

Group C: Maureen Jenkins, "Just Between Friends"; Johnson, "Bones" (repeated); Erick Irvis, "Tuesdays at Nine."

I didn't see these, but I plan to catch up this week.

Group D: Thomas Olson, "Kary Mae for Colored Girls"; Suzanne Danks, "The Inside Reverse"; Javon Johnson, "Eighty-Six."

"Kary Mae" brings a clueless young white woman (Jessica Kennedy) into a poor neighborhood to sell cosmetics to an incredulous black woman (Linda Haston, with lots of funny attitude). "Inside Reverse" has a simple idea about racial prejudice in hiring but can't find a way to make it dramatic. "Eighty-Six," though, is a strange, gothic enigma: Three fugitives from an orphanage (Maurice Brown, Ruel Davis, Shaun Nicole) go to work for a mysterious mortician (Wali Jamal) just as the community goes on a killing spree. But is this all "just" a nightmare? It's a compelling apocalypse, repetitive and slackly paced at 80 minutes but always intriguing.

The plays tackle race in different ways. The most vigorous black-white conflict is in "Slam Dunk" and the most vicious is background to the enigmatic confrontation of "Bones." In "Half of Zero," the racial conflict is shockingly peripheral.

Black-white conflict has a programmed twist in "The Inside Reverse" and a more robust, comic twist in "Robin Hood Holiday." The most even contest between black and white is "Kary Mae for Colored Women," where the nerdy white woman isn't such a fool after all. The happiest rapprochement is in "Big Snow of 1950."

Three plays have no black-white theme at all -- "Girls from Kankakee" and "Eighty-Six" are all black, "The Letter," all white. But we know each has a racially mixed playwright-director pair, and the context of the festival as a whole lends each a slight cross-racial tinge, at least along the lines of "would whites/ blacks react like that?"

Would they? Do they? A mixed black-white audience is having fun sorting it out.


Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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