EDITOR’S NOTE: Kurt was ecstatic when he learned that Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman would be performed in this area. And he recommends that you read “The White Witch” by James Weldon Johnson before attending a performnce of this play. The addition of plays by Langston Hughes (Soul Gone Home) and Paul Green (White Dresses) to the N.C. Central University Department of Theatre and Dance’s A Cultural Evening of One Acts simply added a double layer of icing on the cake.
The preshow music of Friday the 13th was really cool jazz — it got us in the mood.
First up is Langston Hughes’ Soul Gone Home, directed by Tara Rison McGilberry. The play consists of a dialogue between a mother and her son. Diarra Fields plays the grieving mother, and Jonathan Able plays the ghost of her deceased son. They are joined at the end by two undertakers who arrive to take the body.
McGilberry makes an interesting choice: the ghost enters from the back of the theater, walking down the aisle through the audience, bathed in a stark white light. We are thereby given the immediate feeling that he is not-of-the-world-of-the-play.
Diarra Fields shows us a mother who is not only mourning the loss of her son, but also wallowing in self-pity over the life that she could have had if she never had the burden of a son. Jonathan Able shows us a young man who feels cheated out of the life he never really had. What ensues is a war of blame-game between the two.
As with most plays that include a ghost, we are left to wonder whether we have witnessed an actual supernatural visitation or simply been privy to the mother’s internal dialogue as she faces her loss, her guilt, and her self-pity. Both readings work, and it is anyone’s guess whether Langston Hughes or Tara McGilberry would endorse one over the other. In the intense scene, Jonathan Able and Diarra Fields are able to convey the high stakes of the conflict without ever once going overboard.
Next up was Paul Green’s White Dresses, also directed by McGilberry. The white dresses of the title are metaphors for marriage, and we eventually see that it is no accident that there are two of them.
The play has two central characters, the elderly Granny McClean and her granddaughter, Mary. They are “dirt-poor” laborers in the first half of the 20th century. Mary’s character is of the type that old-school literary critics once referred to as “the tragic mulatto” — “torn between her longings” for “both worlds.” But this character is deeper; she knows what she wants and is actually victimized by both worlds.
Mary McClean, played by Keyanna Alexander, wants to marry the son of white landlord Henry Morgan and run off to New York, where she intends to “pass for white.” However, a young black neighbor is actively trying to court her and seems to have Granny’s blessing (along with the approval of Morgan).
Keyanna Alexander is able to project her character’s longings for the paradise that she envisions in the world of which she dreams. And she likewise portrays the disdain for the limitations and betrayals served up by the alternative, the real world. The ultimate betrayal is devastating.
Destini Mewborn’s Granny is a joy to watch. The movement and the body language are appropriate for a woman who has lived this long under these grueling conditions. She exudes an optimism, and we have to admire her ability to appreciate the simple pleasures of life while never losing sight of the limitations imposed by society upon her and hers. One minor complaint: The Department of Picky-Picky would like to see an improvement in her makeup.
Jonathan Able plays Jim Matthews, Mary’s young black suitor. We admire his tenacity and feel for him as he meets repeated rejections. Able demonstrates good acting and singing skills. By design, we are sure, his guitar-playing skills — not-so-much. That is, we feel that it is the character rather than the actor who is supposed to seem less-than-accomplished on the guitar.
These first two plays were each enacted using half of the stage. Soul Gone Home was on our left; White Dresses was on our right. This choice affords the convenience of not having to change the set between the two performances. But there is also an enhancement of the feeling of claustrophobia imposed on the characters in both plays.
Speaking of claustrophobia, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman is set in a subway car. Director Kenneth Hinton, Sr. uses footage from the 1967 movie version of Dutchman as an opening backdrop. Chairs are arranged to suggest the seating in a subway car; and Clay, a middle-class African-American man sits quietly reading his newspaper on his commute.
A sexy young white woman enters and engages him is conversation that turns into seduction, which turns into confrontation which turns into …. (No spoilers.) She seems to be attracted to him, but she very early on tells him “God! You’re dull!” Is there temptation involved here? Is that what the apples symbolize? We quickly lose track of the number of apples that the “Eve” munches on and throws away. Naturally, she gives one to Clay; and he indulges and falls victim.
Gregory “GR” McGilberry is spot-on as Clay, totally dignified at first, then succumbing to temptation and reacting to the treachery in Lula’s bait-and-switch tactics. Felitia Smith plays the temptress to the hilt, and shows the appropriate underlying sinister nature. While these two characters come across fine as individuals, the play lends itself to a wider, metaphorical reading.
In addition to reading “The White Witch,” future audiences for Dutchman should familiarize themselves with the myth of “The Flying Dutchman“; and remind themselves what the term Dutchman means in the world of theater set construction.
Amiri Baraka’s script is a masterpiece, and Kenneth Hinton’s direction served it up first-rate. The event was called A Cultural Evening of One Acts for a reason. All three pieces offered scathing commentary on the brutal limitations imposed on black members of our culture.
It is very seldom that we are treated to staging of the works of any of these three master playwrights. What a treat it was to get one from each!
A CULTURAL EVENING OF ONE ACTS (N.C. Central University Department of Theatre and Dance, Nov. 13-15 in University Theatre in Durham).
PRESENTER: http://www.nccu.edu/academics/sc/artsandsciences/theatredrama/index.cfm and https://www.facebook.com/NCCU-University-Theatre-147769338670586/.
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.