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Criminal Hearts races with great acting


A parade of stereotypes kicks and hollers through Purlie Victorious, Ossie Davis' brash 40-year-old comedy about the bizarre variety of "freedom" that rural blacks experienced in the segregated South of the 1950s--the Emancipation Proclamation was the key that opened the padlock of slavery's chains, but the indentured servitude of sharecropping imposed by farm and plantation owners created a surreal employment contract where field workers were perpetually in debt to their employers. Davis' satire still packs quite a wallop, although the inevitable Uncle Tom character has run its course as a tool of critique--see Spike Lee's Bamboozled. He no longer carries quite the same ring of authenticity, much less recognizability (thank God). I can't imagine what the show must have felt like to New York audiences who caught its long Broadway run in 1961--Davis indicates that he and the producers launched an aggressive campaign of courting African-American churches, clubs and labor unions because he knew the majority of white, well-heeled Broadway ticket buyers wouldn't support it, even in the supposedly racially progressive North.

Holly Hickman and Gray Palmer stare at each other from opposite sides of a scam in Jane Martin's comedy of disappointment and disillusionment.
Buddy Myers
Holly Hickman and Gray Palmer stare at each other from opposite sides of a scam in Jane Martin's comedy of disappointment and disillusionment.

Details

Criminal Hearts runs through May 12 at Allied Theatre, 3055 S. University, Fort Worth. Call (817) STG-WEST.

Purlie Victorious runs through May 13 at the Undermain Basement Space, 3200 Main St., Deep Ellum. Call (214) 521-5070.

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For Soul Rep's production of Davis' comedy of racial guises and disguises, directors Anyika McMillan Herod and Tonya Davis have located a glorious acting tone--somewhere between silly and sincere, cartoonish and sorrowful, although in general far more realistic than the shrill black- and white-face caricatures that must have mugged their way through less skilled interpretations. Even the cotton-picking Uncle Tom here, Gitlow (Douglas Carter), eases into moments of genuine impatience and common sense while enlisted in a plan by self-anointed preacher Purlie Judson (Anthony Golden) to retrieve a barn he wants to use as a church. He coerces Lutibelle (a delightful Lisa Baker), a young woman who's spent her life in "white folks' kitchens," to pose as the heir of a former employee of whip-cracking Georgia cotton tyrant Cap'n Cotchipee (David Benn, looking like Colonel Sanders and a step behind the rest of the performers with his one-note stridency). Benn aside, directors McMillan Herod and Davis have helped an eloquent cast infuse their roles with a dignity that some might complain has blunted Ossie Davis' satiric scalpel. What comes to the fore is the playwright's soaring, stately language, which is worth sacrificing a few cheap laughs. In the end, Soul Rep's is the kind of approach that will keep his script relevant for decades to come.

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