By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For its passionate devotion to the play's ambivalent heart, for its understanding that Beckett's humor is every bit as vital as his pessimism (indeed, probably more so), and for its clean, uncluttered, masterful execution, Kitchen Dog's Waiting for Godot is mandatory theatergoing for everyone, including the non-theatergoer. Even if you plan to stay 50 miles from a stage at all times, you're going to encounter references to this 20th-century staple for the rest of your life, so you might as well take the chance to see it performed with as much energy, eloquence, and professionalism as this Kitchen Dog cast brings to bear.
To laugh heartily and feel unnerved and apprehensive at the same time may be the thinking person's only satisfying reaction to an era in which everything--science, God, art, and certainly government--is subject to vigorous doubt. During his lifetime, Beckett bottled and sold this reaction as a cathartic tonic to weary audiences worldwide. Kitchen Dog snuck his recipe and is currently offering it for a very reasonable fee. Theirs is a tasty, nutritious respite from what ails you.
Waiting for Godot runs through March 7. Call (214) 953-1055.
In 1997, Chicago-based stage director and black-theater impresario Chuck Smith gave an interview in which he discussed the importance of bringing Duane Chandler's 1995 drama The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee, which had won the prestigious Theodore Ward Prize for African-American Writing, to the South. As you can imagine, there hasn't exactly been a mob of productions of Chandler's drama about fallout from the federal government's 40-year syphilis "study" on black males in Macon County, Alabama. Like most of the rest of America, heritage and tradition are big in the South, but only when you're remembering the flattering stuff. Soul Rep Theatre brings a streamlined, intimate production to the Junior Black Academy's cabaret space, the Clarence Muse Theatre.
Unfortunately, there are problems with both script and staging here. The playwright, who has gone on to write for TV's prestigious cop drama Homicide, penned The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee as his Rutgers Scholar master's thesis. His chatty, lumbering script lacks a disciplined dramatic arc; what he presents instead is a rather hoary "investigative" device in which a young New York journalist comes to Tuskegee in 1971. It's shortly after the shit finally hit the fan with the NAACP and other national black organizations over the revelation that, since the early 1930s, government health officials had watched mostly poor, uneducated black men linger into insanity and death from untreated syphilis. The audience becomes the reporter's eyes and ears as he interviews three survivors who participated without knowing exactly why, and, even after cries of protest in the early '70s, aren't entirely sure what has been done to them.
The injustice of the Tuskegee study is self-evident. Nevertheless, it can become wearisome when long recollections and confessions are stretched out over the course of two and a half hours with little concession to rhythm and structure. Miss Evers' Boys, staged several seasons ago at the Dallas Theater Center, also concerned the Tuskegee study, but was on sturdier dramatic ground because there was a gradual thawing-out of the title character's cold professional heart--she is a nurse assigned to care for the study participants--as the ravages of syphilis and the exploitation by the government become harder to ignore. The reporter in The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee begins the show pissed-off, so there is really nowhere for him to go as the study survivors' tales get more outrageous. The playwright does supply a cheap personal revelation toward the end of the show, but you can spot it approaching from miles away.
Director Khary Patyon does get a lot of mileage from some talented actors, especially the marvelous Wilbur Penn as the dirt farmer who clings proudly to his property and Charles Hillman as a tall-tale-telling friend who shares clinic visits and memories of dead friends. Unfortunately, that jury-rigged reporter-doing-an-investigative-piece format feels even more awkward with Dane Hereford as the journalist. His performance mostly feels tentative and out-of-place, although there's truthfully not much to be done with this character. Preserving the memory of a historical atrocity through art requires shape, contour, and even an artifice that the event didn't possess. Raw outrage is an effective fuel for political action, but can leave a play halting and sputtering before it clears the driveway.
The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee runs through February 28. Call (214) 521-5070.