'I Am a Man' is a character study clothed in the union label

March 10, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The large, in-the-round Fichandler Stage at Washington's Arena Stage might seem a perfect setting for a rally-the-masses play about a labor union. But while the 1968 strike by Memphis sanitation workers forms the basis for OyamO's "I Am a Man," the play is less about the masses and more about the individual who founded the local union.

Today the strike is most often remembered as the reason Martin Luther King was in Memphis when he was assassinated. OyamO's play, however, is about a man whose name rarely earns even a footnote in history books -- a small but pivotal figure who was swallowed up by large issues, egos, politics and outside agendas.

Placing this little, flailing character in the middle of a vast empty stage could conceivably reinforce the sense of being overwhelmed. But set designer Riccardo Hernandez and director Donald Douglass (who staged a moving production of "Fences" at Center Stage last season) don't seem to be after that abstract effect -- or the effect of using the space to create audience solidarity with the workers.

Instead, the production falls somewhere in between. And many of the touches called for in the script -- particularly the use of projections and of a blues singer (Olu Dara), who introduces various scenes -- end up detracting from the affecting story of T. O. Jones, founder and president of the Memphis unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But Wendell Wright's poignant portrayal of this earnest, dedicated man keeps reminding us what "I Am a Man" is truly about. Not that Jones is idealized, by any means. One of the best things about this script -- and the mostly strong performances by Arena's cast -- is that it doesn't present clear-cut heroes and villains. We see shreds of decency in Memphis' wrong-headed mayor (Henry Strozier), and we see the flaws in Jones -- such as an eye for women and a tendency toward self-aggrandizement.

The strike was precipitated by the death of two black sanitation workers. They were accidentally crushed, we are told, when their foreman instructed them to wait out a rainstorm by sitting in the back of a garbage truck instead of in the garage with the white workers.

The bond Jones feels with these men -- and with the rest of the black workers -- is evident from his first speech, delivered after their funeral. Jones is the kind of man who will give his last dollar to help feed the family of a laid-off co-worker -- never stopping to think that this will take food out of the mouths of his own children.

He's a simple man who acts from the gut. When the mayor won't accede to his men's demands, Jones strips off his suit in the mayor's office and replaces it with a sanitation worker's overalls. The international union sends trained negotiators -- Lee Sellars as a tough, Jewish New Yorker and Michael W. Howell as a highly educated, condescending black trouble-shooter -- to help out. But while they concentrate on the big picture, meeting with representatives of the NAACP (Stephanie Pope) and local churches (Jeffery V. Thompson), Jones is out dealing with the day-to-day problems of his men. And when a black power group, the Invaders, offers Jones armed protection, he's too swayed by its adulation to recognize the potential danger in its support.

Though Jones' portrait is painted in exacting strokes, some of the production's details are less carefully wrought. A microphone on a small turntable at the center of the stage garbles the words of everyone who uses it. The Invaders come across as buffoons, and Ralph Cosham plays the police chief with an accent that wanders from Maine to Memphis.

One of the more interesting aspects of this script -- by a playwright who changed his name from Charles Gordon -- is that it calls for the garbage workers and Martin Luther King to be

represented solely by voices. Director Douglass, however, casts actors in the roles and brings them on stage. While the playwright may have been trying to suggest Jones' isolation, the director insists on drawing connections. A play can re-focus the lessons of history, but the lens of this production is sometimes blurred.

"I Am a Man"

Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through April 9

Tickets: $20-$39

Call: (202) 488-3300

** 1/2

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