By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Quills runs through August 15. Call (817) STG-WEST.
The playwrights, actors, and directors involved in bringing you Soul Rep's Third Annual New Play Festival will probably either passionately embrace or vehemently reject the phrase political theater when applied to the six one-acts they present in the upstairs space of the Kalita Humphreys Theater known as Frank's Place. But the three shows I saw on the New Play Festival's opening night most definitely fit that description, with all the passion and limitation implied therein.
Plainly put, Soul Rep delivers a series of declarations made about African-American identity, black-Anglo and black-Latino relationships, the fragile nature of masculinity, and the co-opting of black culture by the mainstream. The many messages beat down on you like a fierce, bracing torrent of rain, driven by the sometimes dazzling variety of talent on display. But in the end, the polemics trump the visceral, more universal thrust that theatergoers enjoy from shows with an agenda (and every show has one, even Riverdance) that's not so hard-sell. The spirit moves you, but the placards too often beat you back into place.
The actors are uniformly focused and usually effective, even when you disagree with them: Frank's Place is a dandy little utilitarian venue to highlight any company with a talent for quick-change characterizations and urgent dialogue. By far, the evening's best entry was the first, Chris Herod's The Drums of My so Black Me. As directed by Reginald O'Hanna, this frank, funny, free-form riff starts on a slave ship and goes through fast-food service, Parliament-Funkadelic, dirty magazines, the supposedly powerhouse black penis, and a shoot-out in which accusations of "limp-dick" fly fast and furious. This show challenges African-American icons (one young man prefers to be a P-Funk clone because he doesn't identify with Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King) with the kind of fearless, cunning energy George C. Wolfe directed at blacks and whites in The Colored Museum.
Unfortunately, My so Black Me is clumsy when depicting black-white relations: All the white men (as played by the beleaguered Dan Burkath) are aggressive or foolish or condescending bigots. One vignette dips a toe into homophobia when a white warehouse guy gets all touchy-feely with a black co-worker while describing his wife's fetish for black men.
The terrain gets bumpier with Reginald O. Hanna's Four Holy Ghosts in America, directed by Kate McClaine of Collected Works. The opening scene of this quartet is hilarious, with Tammy Thomas playing a psychic-hotline Soul Train award-winner whose qualifications are less than cosmic. Thomas commands the stage, then abdicates her throne to lesser characters: a drill sergeant (Stuart Litchfield) who leads you, for reasons that remain unclear, on a march into hell, and a gratingly whimsical fetus (Dane Hereford) who drags you through a cloying anti-abortion aria.
The opening night wrapped with Race, an adaptation by Jamie Pachino of the non-fiction tome by Studs Terkel. The program describes it as a "poignant and uncensored look into race" and compares it to "President Clinton's Initiative on Race." But as directed by Dee Smith, these scattered Polaroid duets between black men and women (Yusef Miller and Renee Micheal) and one white man and one Latina (Burkath again and Marisela Barrera, artistic director of Cara Mia Theatre) are most decidedly cut to present Burkath as a craven, self-deceptive, hateful imperialist. He does manage to utter the wisest line of the whole evening: "I've heard harmonious race relations are when you've got your foot on my throat, and I don't ask to get up." It's true of Anglos who expect African-Americans to be less arrogant, less opinionated about their frustration with American society; it's also true of African-Americans who expect Anglos to smile and applaud at simplistic depictions of racial dynamics as though they were insightful art.
Soul Rep's Third Annual New Play Festival runs through August 15. Call (214) 565-0186.