True art comes from experiences of the soul

February 16, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

THERE IS A STORY that Tennessee Williams once was asked why he didn't include black characters in his plays.

"Blacks are going to have to tell their own stories," Williams replied.

I always took Williams response to imply that only blacks could tell their own stories properly. Certainly that is the thrust of playwright August Wilson's recent calls for independent black theaters in which young playwrights and actors could develop their talents.

That there is an abundance of black talent waiting to be discovered and developed was brought home to me recently on reading the work of Rhonda White, a 17-year-old Baltimore high school student whose work was recommended to me by a mutual acquaintance.

White's play, "Getto Love," recounts the events leading up to yet another senseless killing of the type that has become all too familiar in recent years.

Plotted with the melancholy implacability of a Greek tragedy, the play reads like a real-life theater of the absurd, a not quite cautionary tale (because caution implies foresight and control, which her characters eschew) of guns, alienated youth and grieving parents. It is a story that has become a depressing staple of the 6 o'clock local news.

An uncanny ear

White has an uncanny ear for the disjointed rhythms and brutal inflections of her generation and enough personal experience of life's harsh realities to give her voice an undeniable authority. She knows her characters' pain and the sly sounds it makes on their tongues.

Her dialogue is not the poetic speech of August Wilson or Tennessee Williams, but the raw, untutored outbursts of the country blues reincarnated as gangsta rap.

Her characters speak a vicious argot of slang, curses and knowing references to sex and drugs. Most of it is as unprintable in a family newspaper as hip-hop music is unplayable over the public airwaves.

Still, the sad fact is there are a lot of young people out there who talk that way simply because that is all they have ever known or heard. White's ear is perfectly attuned to their linguistic rebellion and the desperate fatalism it barely conceals.

At a city high school, Lil' Man and his friend BJ discuss trouble brewing as a result of a dispute between BJ and Calvin, another student, over BJ's girl, Tanya.

Tanya used to go with Calvin, but left him to take up with BJ. Calvin has vowed revenge.

BJ plans to go to college and wonders what will happen to Tanya when he leaves for school in the fall. Tanya, who cares mostly about looking good and keeping a man, pretends not to worry but "accidentally" becomes pregnant when the couple make love.

At a party, BJ, Tanya and their friends smoke marijuana and drink themselves silly. Calvin and his new girlfriend, Ke-Ke, also are present.

Plot twists and turns

Ke-Ke boasts to one of Tanya's girlfriends that after the party Calvin plans to "represent" on BJ. The girlfriend understands some sort of assault is imminent and tries to warn the couple. But BJ professes unconcern and Tanya, fearful of what may happen, decides to go home early.

As the revelers take their leave, Calvin confronts BJ in the street outside. Before BJ can react, Calvin brandishes a gun and shoots his rival several times. As BJ's lifeless body crumples to the pavement, Calvin flees.

The police notify BJ's mother that her son has been killed. BJ's mom calls Tanya and tells her what has happened. The two women try to comfort one another as they each break down in tears.

The art of storytelling is a gift that cannot be taught. Ultimately it has nothing to do with grammar, spelling or the dramatic structures held up as models for aspiring writers.

Anyone can learn grammar, spelling or structure, and almost anyone can learn to imitate a successful formula. White's manuscript is full of typographical and stylistic mishaps.

But no one can teach a writer how to breathe life into a character, or how to hear the voices that make that character get up off the page and walk around.

That is something every artist must learn on his or her own. The best storytellers seem born already knowing it. White's knowing is deep despite her years.

Still, some may ask what can be learned from these damaged lives lived on the razor edge of licentiousness and despair.

At their best, the anguished voices of White's characters shine through the technical failings of her manuscript with a classical economy of means and the emotional force of a .357 slug. They cannot help but speak to us because they are us, though stripped of the pretension of high art.

One longs to see them on stage with the apprehensive fascination of rubberneckers approaching a particularly gruesome highway accident.

But that is how so much of the art of our time seems to make its impression, like a rose in a whiskey glass -- at once beautiful and grotesque, alluring and dangerous, true both to itself and its age.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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