In 'The Rabbit Foot,' families face city and backwoods

November 06, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

On the most basic level, Leslie Lee writes plays about families -- of the traditional and untraditional varieties. Both types inhabit his 1991 script, "The Rabbit Foot," which is making its Maryland debut at Arena Players.

Directed and designed by Sam Wilson, this "Rabbit Foot" is paced more like a tortoise than a hare, but the play's split focus is reinforced visually as well as dramatically.

Wilson's set design divides the stage into two distinct parts. One half represents the home of a poor Mississippi sharecropper and his family; the other is the performance tent used by the Rabbit Foot, which was an actual black minstrel troupe in the early part of the century. As this indicates, the script calls for half of the actors to also be musicians -- a requirement competently and entertainingly met here.

Although "The Rabbit Foot's" two halves don't come together until the last scene, the playwright repeatedly draws connections between them, and these parallels provide some of the more intriguing elements of the play.

For instance, the sharecropper's wife, affectingly portrayed by Darlene Owens, longs to migrate to "the promised land" of the North. Her hopes are echoed by the visions of big-city stardom of a Rabbit Foot singer and comedian named Holly Day, played broadly, but with ingratiating goodwill, by Stacy Plenty-Watson.

Similarly, the troupe's superstitious blues diva, Bertha Mae Primrose -- played by C.C. Lyles with a big voice and matching presence -- mirrors the backwoods beliefs of the sharecropper's grandmother (Judi Anderson Johnson).

Interestingly, however, the playwright has set his protagonist apart, creating a character who defies parallels. A decent, struggling sharecropper, earnestly portrayed by James Arthur Brown, Reggie is a World War I veteran who tasted equality in Europe and fathered an illegitimate mulatto child there. But instead of believing his wife's predictions of a better life up North, he is inspired by his European memories to help improve the lot of his fellow black sharecroppers.

At first, Reggie's loyalty seems similar to that of Singin' Willie Ford (D. Carter Andrew), the stalwart leader of the Rabbit Foot, who refuses to forsake his Southern audiences. But in the neatly crafted final scene, the playwright brings Singin' Willie and Reggie together only to show how different they have become. Convinced, at long last, to head North, Reggie and his wife set out to start a new family, while Singin' Willie remains destitute and alone, the last of the Rabbit Foot minstrels, deserted by his theatrical family and clinging to the past.

Lee's previous work includes the more conventional family drama, "The First Breeze of Summer," which was produced at Center Stage in 1977, and "Black Eagles," the story of a considerably less conventional family, the World War II Tuskegee airmen, staged at Ford's Theatre in Washington two seasons ago.

Underlying each of these dramas, as well as "The Rabbit Foot," is Lee's concern with the larger family of black Americans. Though Arena Players' production frequently lacks tension and draws attention to the seams in the script, it cannot daunt two of the main qualities the playwright ascribes to this family -- dignity and hope.

@'The Rabbit Foot' When: Fridays at 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Nov. 15.

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

Tickets: $12.

Call: (410) 728-6500.

** 1/2

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