Drama about poet Dunbar reaches under the mask

March 13, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

On Saturday, I watched as Dunbar High School won its fourth straight state championship at the University of Maryland. A few hours later, I was sitting in Arena Playhouse watching a biographical play about the man for whom the school is named.

"Oak and Ivy" the name of the play and also of Dunbar's first published book of poetry ended its run Sunday night. We should all hope for its speedy return either at Arena or elsewhere for this was one superb play. Kick yourself repeatedly if you missed it.

Mind you, I don't say this because my brother, Michael Kane, turned in an excellent performance as Paul Laurence Dunbar. I tend to be biased in these matters. The entire cast including Tennelia Engram as Dunbar's wife, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar, and Ruth Tutt-Hobson as his mother, Matilda was top-notch. But it is playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson who should get most of the praise. She brings us a love story, paints a portrait of Dunbar seldom seen and retrieves Alice Moore from the obscure place in history where male chauvinism had relegated her.

Dunbar became famous for his poems in black dialect, though he also wrote verse in the king's English. By age 13, he was giving public recitals of his poems. In high school, he was the president of the literary society and editor of the newspaper. In short, his writing skills and command of language were more than competent, and in his later years he grew resentful that there was no demand for his nondialect poems. His resentment may have led him to write his "We Wear The Mask," which Dunbar recites in the play after tongue-lashing a porter who is gleefully reciting one of the dialect poems:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guile:

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To Thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh, the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask.

Alice and Paul begin their relationship by sending mutual letters of admiration. Alice, a teacher and writer, marries Paul, hoping they will become equal partners, sharing in each other's work. But Paul can't divest himself of the notion that a wife's position is subservient to that of a husband. He is supported in the idea by his mother, Matilda. Alice soon is doing less writing and performing typical "wifely" duties.

When Alice tries to write an essay questioning whether black soldiers should fight in the Spanish-American War, Paul brushes her concerns off. He becomes furious when she tells him that she has saved her money to accompany him on a trip to President McKinley's inauguration. Their conflict, and Paul's struggle with tuberculosis, take a toll on the marriage.

"It's feminist propaganda," my brother said of much of the play. "But I don't mind it."

Nor do I. This is good art here, not "Waiting to Exhale." You'll find no gratuitous bashing of one-dimensional black male characters here. McGhee-Anderson gives us a fully developed Dunbar character: a gifted, dignified man who loves his wife but who reduces her to near servitude by his own slavish devotion to the sexism of his time.

So McGhee-Anderson can do as much male-bashing as she pleases. In an interview with WOLB talk radio host Bernie McCain in January, I told him I don't mind being bashed, as long as I'm being bashed with good art.

In the absence of black drama on network television and the pathetic "Waiting to Exhale" continuing its mephitic run at movie theaters, we need an "Oak and Ivy" to balance things out. Here's hoping the struggling Arena Players can bring it back for another run with more community support this time.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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