'Honey Chil' Milk' is tough on stereotypes

February 14, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

A sharp-edged satirical look at the way black women have been stereotyped in the entertainment industry is presented in "Honey Chil' Milk," on stage at the Theatre Project through Feb. 23.

Conceived and directed by New York choreographer Donald Byrd, the premise for the work is based on the book "Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes, and Bucks" by Donald Bogle.

The work incorporates dance, effective original music by Paul Mathews and theater performance. Hardly subtle, this is tough, hit-you-in-the-face, raw satire. The humiliation, the suffering and cruelty black women have been subjected to since enslavement is painfully executed in various comedy styles.

At times, however, this savage parody crosses the line of genuine insightful humor over to the shady area of poor taste. For instance a ludicrous female stand-up comic says to a poor slave about to be hanged, "the yoke's on you."

Some bits are very clever. Four of the actresses gather collectively under the enormous skirt of a big, bossy black mammy. They holler, bow and scrape and speak all the old Hollywood movie servile black jargon. Meanwhile a white man in a gleaming plantation suit sings "Mammy" and dances the minstrel show routine.

Climbing into Mammy's arms for solace and nurturing he turns nasty and rapes her. Then there is the painful birth of the mulatto woman and her woes.

All through the piece there is an underlying caustic bitterness and, unfairly, the likes of Oprah, Diahann Carroll and Jackee are trashed. "They are not real sisters," the group ambiguously claims.

The piece ends on an incongruous soft note with the plea, "accept me as I am."

The second part of the evening brings an entertaining takeoff on Harriet Tubman, the savior of the underground railroad. Actress Vell L. Wheeler is on the phone promoting "Harriet's Travels" for escaping slaves. "Do you want the singing or non-singing part of the train?" she asks.

Christopher Eaves, Sheila Gaskins, Harriette Lane, Toni Richards, Joyce J. Scott and Wheeler all turn in virtuoso performances.


"A Shayna Maidel" (Yiddish for a pretty girl), a strong drama by Barbara Lebow about the effects of the Holocaust on a family soon after World War II, is running at the Spotlighters Theatre through March 3.

Thoughtfully directed by Barry Feinstein, this production has some good moments. Lusia, a concentration camp victim, comes to live with her younger sister, Rose, in New York City. Rose has a good job and career prospects. Lusia has only a doll and dreadful memories that plague her awake or asleep.

However, the play is told through a series of confusing flashbacks. Lusia has conversations with "ghosts" of the past -- her mother who died in a concentration camp, her husband who is missing and a female friend who expired while interned.

The sisters' old world father (he came to America before the Nazi purge of Jews) fatalistically relies on God's will, but Lusia, having endured unspeakable horrors, fights his complacent acceptance of all things.

A work like this, with its long, probing conversations and lack of exciting conflict or physical action needs strong performances to hold it together. The performances here are uneven.

The pace in this show is slow and the subtle, humorous elements are obscured by too-heavy interpretations. Some important scenes (such as the death list sequence) lose their dramatic tension.

Lisa Salkov does very well as the courageous Lusia caught between two worlds. Barney Cohen is off the course portraying the blustering but loving Poppa as a mean-spirited bully.

As Rose, Rachel Zirkin is sincere but lacks the experience to impart the delicate changes and maturation of her difficult character. Jon Lipitz as Lusia's long-lost husband gives an ill-at-ease, superficial performance.

Rhona Raher-Olefsky is believable as Lusia's memory mother. But it is Mindy Rutkovitz who shines in a small role. As Hanna, Lusia's dead friend, Rutkovitz gives an in-depth, finely shaded and moving performance.


"The Award," an excellent one-act play written by R.B. Jones, is to be presented by the Spirit of Malik Theater at 7 p.m. Sunday at the BAUhouse on Charles Street.

"If black people do not believe they can win liberation, they will never achieve it. If black people do not exact retribution from those who betray them, the betrayals will never stop," says the playwright in his strong work.

In this four-person play, a once renowned Sun columnist who has grown soft in the after years of the civil rights movement agrees to write an acceptance speech for his best friend who has won a prestigious humanitarian award.

Only it is discovered the admired friend turns out to be an informer for the police and the FBI during the days of the movement. The crux of the play lies in the writer's decision to take or not take a stand of moral courage.

The tightly written work ties in actual events, and some disturbing and enlightening facts on the movement come to light.

R.B. Jones plays the writer who is forced into an unhappy decision. Joyce Finney, Lyn Shipley and Irving Phillips deliver fine performances.

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