Polite society acts as if racial stereotypes were left behind in the civil rights movement's wake, but what about TV sitcom characters who seem no more multidimensional than the cast of "Gone With the Wind"? Or, on a more personalized front, the residual racist attitudes in even the most politically correct among us?
These lingering stereotypes are hit in head-on and hilarious fashion in "Honey Chil' Milk," a vaudeville-structured satire that has audiences of recovering racists laughing (if sometimes a bit nervously) at the Theatre Project.
Conceived and directed by Donald Byrd, "Honey Chil' Milk" goes after its stereotypes by ironic indulgence in them. The earth-mother figure embodied by Aunt Jemima is spoofed as mercilessly here as George C. Wolfe went after the related momma-on-a-couchfigure in "The Colored Museum."
The evening's most memorable moment is when all five actresses -- Toni Richards, Sheila Gaskins, Harriette Lane, Vell L. Wheeler and Joyce Scott -- come out wearing the same huge dress and simultaneously speaking in dialect about collard greens and churchgoing. When one of the women literally tries to break out of the Aunt Jemima mold, it doesn't prove easy.
In the skits that follow, we see how deeply internalized stereotypes become, as in a "pickaninny rap" where the lead rapper's insistent repetition of the phrase "pick, pick" strikes a raw nerve next to the funny bone. But we also see via stand-up comedy how black women can assert their individuality, as in an attack on entertainment world stereotypes punctuated by the mantra-like chant: "How come we ain't got no real sisters on TV?"
There also are edgy exchanges between the women and a white actor dressed in a white plantation suit (Christopher Eaves). These scenes are a massa/momma variation on the old master/servant dialecticwhereby the master is totally dependent on the servant in his employ. This relationship leads to the jolting image of the momma suckling the massa and he suddenly transforming their nurturing embrace into rape.
Begun as part of Maryland Art Place's Diverse Works series in 1989 and later restaged at Towson State University, this piece comes to the Theatre Project as a 50-minute work in progress that still needs work. The opening is weak, because the synthesizer overture played by Paul Mathews goes on too long, as does some pantomime by the massa.
"Honey Chil' Milk" continues Wednesday to Sundays at the Theatre Project through Feb. 23. Call 752-8558.