Fine acting offsets play's harsh topic

THEATER

February 12, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When the late playwright John Henry Redwood daringly titled his 2000 play No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, he surely knew he'd raise some hackles.

The words are ugly, and that's the point. This is a play about the ugliness of bigotry; the title is taken from a sign seen in the South in the 1940s. The play is also, however, about familial love and the kind of understanding that transcends racial boundaries. It's a hard-hitting script, but one tempered with touching and ultimately hopeful moments.

Still, the title makes it a gutsy prospect for any theater. And yet the subject matter couldn't be more appropriate for Black History Month and particularly for Arena Players, where director Amini Johari-Courts has mounted one of Arena's most powerful productions in recent seasons.

Set in 1949 North Carolina, the action focuses on a rural African-American family. While husband Rawl Cheeks (Michael A. Kane) is working as a gravedigger out of state, wife Mattie is raped by a white man for whom she does laundry. Afraid of what Rawl might do if he finds out, she decides not to tell him.

Played with fortitude and dignity by Cheryl Pasteur, Mattie is convinced her silence is the only way to make sure her children grow up with a father. Her reasoning stems largely from the example of her beloved but reclusive and specter-like Aunt Cora (Sandra Meekins), whose husband was lynched for taking revenge after Cora was assaulted.

Adding another layer to the mix is a Jewish character named Yaveni (David A. Berkenbilt) who is studying the Cheeks family as part of a comparative research project on racism against Jews and Negroes.

Initially regarded with skepticism and distrust by Mattie, Yaveni eventually becomes her ally, especially after he reveals that he has a painful secret of his own. The speech in which he explains this, like several of Mattie's speeches, is over-laden with exposition and indignation, but Berkenbilt and particularly Pasteur approach these lengthy passages with conviction strong enough to compensate for the heavy-handed writing.

The cast also includes two talented young actresses who deliver notable portrayals of the Cheekses' daughters - Yolanda M. Jenkins as an angry 17-year-old and Brianna Hollimon as her talkative 11-year-old sister. But then, the entire company handles Redwood's difficult material with care, poise and, most of all, warmth. Never once, for instance, is there any doubt about the love Kane's Rawl feels for the wife and daughters he dubs "my ladies."

Four years ago, director Johari-Courts staged the Baltimore premiere of Redwood's best-known play, The Old Settler, at Arena. This more recent drama is more challenging, but she and her cast meet those challenges boldly, sensitively and head on, and the result is another admirable local premiere.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 29. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

Somewhat scary tales

One of the creepiest things about Campfire Stories, Mobtown Players' self-proclaimed "evening of creepy storytelling," is how wildly uneven an evening it is. The material ranges from the work of such master wordsmiths as Edgar Allan Poe and H.L. Mencken to a sprawling monologue by an Annapolis writer named Robert Lentz.

Of the four short dramas that make up the bill, the standout is "Mencken's Baltimore Ablaze!" a timely reminiscence of the 1904 fire, culled by Rich Espey from Mencken's writings.

Without attempting to impersonate Mencken, Ted Alsedek delivers the performance of the evening as the brashly exuberant journalist, regaling us with the tale of a beer-swilling buddy who tried to douse the fire's first embers and ended up fueling them instead.

The Poe selection, "The Black Cat," would be equally engrossing except that director Jim Page has inexplicably changed the gender of the narrator of this domestic horror story. Few of the details have been changed, however, resulting in a middle-class 19th-century housewife who wears waistcoats and haunts saloons. Furthermore, Niji Ramunas' portrayal of the wife conveys little of the rage or inner turmoil essential to the story's deeply disturbed, indeed homicidal, protagonist.

The third Campfire story, "The Myth of Orithyia," is a multi-actor piece written by Ryan Whinnem, Mobtown's artistic director. Whinnem acknowledges in his program bio that he writes "esoteric and confusing pieces."

That certainly describes this intermingling of various accounts of love and jealousy - one mythological, one African, one a 21st-century marriage gone bad and, well, there's supposed to be a fourth, but I seem to have gotten lost someplace between Africa and Athens.

The final piece, Lentz's "You're Scaring the Children," is a fictitious tale of murder and mayhem in an elementary school, told by a survivor - a former student under psychiatric care.

Gareth Kelly has done yeoman's work learning this convoluted, repetitive, seemingly endless monologue. But though Mobtown reportedly abridged Lentz's full-length text, the red pencil was retired far too soon.

Director Page's production also includes choral speaking performed by the company in masks, as well as off-stage drumming - and lots and lots of fog effects. Presumably, these are intended to touch some primordial cord. But the thing about scary stories is that if they're truly scary, they don't need to be tricked up. Mobtown's embellishments come across as arty at best, pretentious at worst.

Mobtown Players performs at Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 29. Tickets are $12. Call 410-467-3057.

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