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Nine is enough to add up to a grand year in Dallas theater

What's that great whoosh you hear this week as you step into Dallas theaters? It's the collective breath of artists and audiences finally released after being caught in 12 months of anticipation. Your blue pallor can return to its natural rosiness, people; your gin blossoms will bloom gaily again. The 2000 edition of The Jimmys are here.

A vulgarian editor asked if I was going to turn in my "top-10 list" for this, the year's final Dallas Observer edition, as if the Jimmys were just another grocery list of critical whims. Lest anyone confuse this with the other critics' year-end roundups of 10-best picks, I have included only nine shows and/or performances. Each merits the standard of excellence that makes the Jimmy so coveted: namely, they didn't bore me. They pried a genuine emotion out of a flinty heart. I'd like to say to each of the winners: You carried me out of my seat to another place. Thanks.

Pam Dougherty, Lemonade, Echo Theatre: Tom Sime of The Dallas Morning News was a bit taken aback when one of our city's most versatile actors thanked him for complimenting her breasts in his review of Lemonade. Refreshingly older than 25 and more robust than a size 4, Pam Dougherty delivered a heartbreaking monologue of hope for her middle-aged future with a new lover sleeping in bed beside her. The fact that he was a serial killer made Dougherty's dreams of travel both deranged and poignant, but she kept Eve Ensler's caustic comic drama of forbidden love anchored in a serene loneliness. Yes, she was topless during her speech on escape and exploration, and no, it wasn't gratuitous--the gesture added an impromptu kind of intimacy. Ms. Dougherty, I was the one who complimented your breasts. Rest assured that this was an expression of purely aesthetic approval.
Jubilee Theatre marched on Travelin' Shoes into the arms of a Jimmy
Jubilee Theatre marched on Travelin' Shoes into the arms of a Jimmy

Joe Dickinson, Vikings, Pocket Sandwich Theatre: Pocket Sandwich co-founder Joe Dickinson apparently had to be hounded into repeating a stage role he'd performed years earlier--an ailing Danish patriarch trying to secure happiness for his alcoholic son and his grandson, who wants to carry on the family construction business against his father's wishes. A line load of this size would be daunting for any actor, and Dickinson has of late faced challenges against his own health. Dallas audiences were reminded that a soul of professionalism and sheer dramatic acuity lurks beneath the Pocket Sandwich's façade of beer-soaked camp. Dickinson's gravelly-velvety Shakespearean monologues of excitement over his family's prospects for college and a new wife had folks crying in their cheese fries.

Ensemble, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Dallas Theater Center: Director Reggie Montgomery was miscast when he played Scrooge in DTC's Christmas Carol 2000--too young, too athletically long-legged and self-consciously clownish--but he sure knows how to pull together an ensemble cast for a domestic drama where all kinds of odd historical elements converge. Playwright Lynn Nottage took a not altogether novel plot--black family moves from the South to Brooklyn after the mother dies in the early 1950s, and has a head-on culture crash--and suffused it with unexpected little flourishes to soup up the conflict. Poppa (Alex Morris) is a devotee of the real-life separatist Christian leader Father Divine, who forbids sex and alcohol, and took the privilege of naming the daughters of his followers; Aunt (Portia L. Johnson) is a hard-drinking Communist whose leftist Harlem cabal is trying to fold Marxist rhetoric into the civil rights movement; the new wife (Sally Nystuen) is a German immigrant who, such a short time after World War II and the Holocaust, finds herself hated for her skin color and her nationality. With such unusual twists in characterization and dilemma, the constant onstage brawling was super-charged with real urgency and a sense of far corners of the 20th century being brought closer together.

Ensemble Travelin' Shoes, Jubilee Theatre: Over the years, audiences have come to regard any musical revue mounted by director Rudy Eastman, arranger-musical director-bandleader Joe Rogers, and their talented company of actor-singers at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre as mandatory weekend entertainment. The shows usually serve as relaxed educational sessions, or at least reminders, of how virtually all popular American music is black music, or can be traced back a very short way. They saunter through gospel, jazz, blues, and R & B, making you realize it's us critics who insist on isolating them. Travelin' Shoes was a loose, droll, five-man ode to the so-called Jubilee Quartets of the late 19th century, ensembles who sang Negro spirituals to folk in white concert halls and black dives barely a generation after slavery. Weepers like "Motherless Child" and "I Heard Zion Moan" alternated with jazzy five-part harmonies and relationship advice like "Let That Liar Alone." All five men were superb, but Jubilee stars Kevin Haliburton and Robert Rouse were the undeniable masters.

Jenny Gravenstein, The Food Chain, Circle Theatre: Like many Nicky Silver plays, The Food Chain is lopsided, has long passages of calcified comic conceits, and doesn't seem to know where it wants to go. But recent SMU grad Jenny Gravenstein gave a rib-crushingly funny, if sometimes exhausting, performance as a New Yorker poet and drama queen who can't separate world injustice from her own neuroses about food, sex, and abandonment. She carries on a long, almost breathless confession to a crisis hotline worker about her errant husband, walking barefoot around her high-rise with a wine glass, gesturing with that purse-lipped, high forehead-wrinkled debutante entitlement that, unbeknownst to her, chafes absurdly with her liberal and artistic pretensions. At one point, she confesses that her last published poems were called "Untitled 13" and "Untitled 14." She has just completed a new piece that uses the wind as a metaphor for God. What's it called? "I don't know. I haven't titled it yet."

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