By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The material has promise, but the production of TeCo Theatrical's latest at the Bishop Arts Theatre, Black at the Assassination, doesn't do it any justice. And justice is what this new play by Dallas writers Kyadal Robertson and Camika Spencer is all about.
Connected by one event, the assassination of JFK, long vignettes depict events and conversations among African-Americans in Dallas as they might have happened just before and immediately after the tragedy in 1963. A teacher (Deon Q. Sanders) drills her fifth-graders about black American history, then has to break the terrible news that the president, "our savior," has been shot. Three black teachers (Junene K., Vontress Mitchell, Otis Donnelly Watson) on the scene to protest at what would have been the president's speech at the Trade Mart talk about social issues with a young Hispanic cater waiter (José Silva). Two days after the shooting, a South Dallas minister (Eric Beasley in a strong performance) preaches to his angry congregation that he's been called by civic leaders and asked to tell his community "to hide our heart and our pain." Instead, he urges them to continue their fight for desegregation and better schools.
There's good agit-prop drama in Black at the Assassination that is worth developing into a serious piece of theater. The writers have done their research and the testimonies by the characters have a ring of truth as they drop references to H.L. Green drugstore and "Negro Day" at Fair Park. But TeCo's staging, directed by Becki McDonald, is insultingly artless. There is no stagecraft here. None. Actors repeatedly turn their backs and speak upstage. Random chairs, a couple of plastic milk crates (which weren't in use in 1963) and other tacky detritus substitute for scenery. Lighting by Cameron Hefty (who is also credited with the set "design") often plunges center stage into darkness while actors are standing there.
Amateur and community theaters all over Dallas and Fort Worth present brilliantly designed, skillfully directed and visually beautiful shows on tiny budgets, so there's no reason to expect anything less from a company that's been doing professional theater for a decade or more.
This problem at TeCo's shows, however, is always just a general lack of polish, a lack of care about the details of the final product. And what a shame. Bishop Arts Theatre is a gem of a space that was given to TeCo and renovated with donated funds. This should be a showcase for Dtallas writers, actors, musicians and designers, and a showplace of which discerning theatergoers in Oak Cliff could rightly be proud.