Making connections at Arena Players

CRITIC'S CORNER

Johari-Courts, `Alabama Sky' director, pulls disparate characters - and the audience - together

Critic's Corner

Theater

February 23, 2006|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky, a former chorus girl/hooker in 1930s Harlem and a fresh-off-the-farm, churchgoing Southerner engage in a little question-and-answer game to get acquainted on a first date.

As directed by Amini Johari-Courts at Arena Players, Janna Small and Douglass Goldman exemplify their disparate roles. Small, as the jaded, sophisticated chorus girl, toys with the innocent affections of Goldman, the naive Alabamian. Although each eventually will be far worse for this encounter, at this moment their lives hold a hint of hope.

Cleage excels at bringing dissimilar characters together and making their association credible. In Blues for an Alabama Sky, besides the chorus girl and her Southern beau, the characters include a gay costume designer (played gently, but with a big heart, by Carltaise Ransome); a hardworking, fun-loving doctor (played with wisdom and weariness by Archie Williams) and a young social worker (played with sweetness and conviction by Tennelia Engram).

Though versions of these characters have been seen on stage before, the combination makes the play distinctive. Except for the Alabamian, who is an outsider, the rest of this group has formed a substitute family. And each surrogate family member tries to support the hopes of the others.

The costume designer is determined to work for Josephine Baker in Paris. The social worker, a follower of Margaret Sanger, is determined to establish a birth control clinic in Harlem. The doctor is determined to keep saving lives (often against all odds). And the chorus girl - who has just been jilted by a mobster - is determined to find a man to take care of her.

She picks the wrong man, which everyone realizes but her. Seeing Small grab Goldman's arm and pull him into the apartment, we realize how tragically desperate she is. It's one of Johari-Courts' best directorial flourishes in a production that, though a bit slow at times, offers a look at the waning of the Harlem Renaissance through the eyes, not of its leading lights, but of the people they affected.

Cleage's play establishes the connections among these diverse souls, and Johari-Courts (who also directed Cleage's Flyin' West at this theater in 2001) and her cast make them so believable, you'll feel a connection with them, too.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through March 5. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

First Look for '06

Center Stage launches this season's First Look play-reading series at 7 p.m. Monday with Simon Levy's What I Heard About Iraq. Subtitled A Cry for 5 Voices, the play is adapted from an article in the London Review of Books by Eliot Weinberger. When the play debuted at Los Angeles' Fountain Theatre in September, the Los Angeles Times described it as a "passionately antiwar play [that] should be viewed with an open mind, regardless of political affiliation."

A discussion titled "Can War Make Peace?" will follow the reading, which will be directed by Center Stage literary manager Otis Ramsey-Zoe. The event is free, but reservations are recommended. Call 410-332-0033. And, stay tuned to this column for information on a festival of First Look readings, scheduled to begin March 20.

Woolf-themed benefit

Broadway actress Kathleen Chalfant will perform an adaptation of three Virginia Woolf short stories at the Theatre Project's annual benefit on March 18.

Chalfant's portrayal of a cancer-stricken professor in Margaret Edson's Wit won her Obie and Drama Desk awards. She was also nominated for a Tony Award for her portrayal of characters ranging from a rabbi to a Mormon housewife in Tony Kushner's Angels in America. More recently, she was seen in Five By Tenn, a bill of one-act plays produced at the Kennedy Center's 2004 "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival and subsequently in New York.

Jointly titled The Party, the staged Woolf stories - "The New Dress," "Together and Apart" and "A Summing Up" - were adapted by Ellen McLaughlin, one of Chalfant's fellow cast members in Angels in America. Direction is by David Esbjornson.

"An Evening with Kathleen Chalfant," at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., begins with dinner at 6:30 p.m.; the performance is at 8 p.m., followed by a dessert reception. Tickets are $100 for the entire evening or $50 for the performance and reception.

On March 19, Chalfant will perform The Party at 2 p.m. for high school and college students. Doors open at 1 p.m. for brunch, and a question-and-answer session will follow the performance. Tickets are $10 for students; $20 general admission.

For tickets or information, call 410-752-8558.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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