You Jane

There are deeper issues behind the identity of pseudonymous playwright Jane Martin, a Kentuckian who remains the most-produced playwright in the 25-year history of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays. Women who've been accused (and vehemently deny that they are Martin) include established theater artists Beth Henley and Marsha Norman, both frequently staged at Actors Theatre under their own names. The consensus is that Humana Festival founder and former producing director Jon Jory is the prolific Martin; he tends to dodge the question good-humoredly rather than outright refute it. But there are also many who think Jory is merely one collaborator under that female pen name, possibly alongside several women or with just his wife, Marcia Dixcy, a former ATL costume designer.

Everyone who knows the real Martin refused to talk for a piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal about this year's Humana Festival and Martin's new play Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, probably because on the surface, it seems such a trivial piece of information. "You never learn anything from a play by knowing its author," insists Norman, stating a broad and extremely debatable thesis to end the hubbub. Leaving aside some serious matters of interest conflicts (Jory was able to secure himself a career-launching niche by posing as a woman in his own festival, a venue that has an international reputation for fostering female voices), the pseudo-mystery behind "Jane Martin" has led men and women to say all kinds of dubious and silly things. The New York Times' Mel Gussow asserted that Martin's plays "are written about subjects only a woman could know." (That's a humdinger of a self-canceling proposition; how can a man recognize subjects that only a woman could know about if he's a man?) Julie Crutcher, a former ATL literary manager, cites Martin's play Cementville and, in a proscription that would surprise Hot 'N Throbbing author Paula Vogel, declares satire of sexploitation off-limits to girls: "Only a man could write a play about women wrestlers that required them to parade around in their underwear."

What could be behind all this gender-assumption lunacy? Certainly a lot more than what Martin's slight but undeniably entertaining script Criminal Hearts deserves, here raised to heights of antic inspiration by director James Crawford and the Allied Theatre Group cast in their Fort Worth production. I contend there's no bloody way you can "tell" from this play if it was written by a woman or a man, which is to say it could just as likely come from one as the other, which is another way of saying Jory's almost-certain Martin masquerade is both an amusing lark and a telling concession to gender-difference fanatics. Jory is a smug bastard if he thinks he has some unprecedented all-access pass to women's minds, since I contend that one woman's thoughts can be as dramatically different from another as from a man's noodlings. Criminal Hearts, like Martin's Jack and Jill and monologues from her Talking With collection, involves the passage of one woman from crippling self-delusion to farcical empowerment via orchestrated vengeance against a man. Were you to switch genders in this equation, you might stir cries of "Sexism!" from some with feminist inclinations. But if the piece contained as many clever-verging-on-brilliant performances as Allied Theatre's show does, it could withstand bombardment from all sides as the tale of an individual who throws off lifelong expectations imposed by others to discover a taste for grand larceny.

Criminal Hearts begins on a high note comically thwarted, as Whitney Houston gets squashed in midchorus when the hand of Ata (Emily Scott Banks) crashes down to hit the alarm-clock button after "I Will Always Love You" awakens her. Ata's own story of love has left her uneager to greet the morning; her lavish high-rise has been ransacked by her belittling husband Wib (a suitably nasty and snidely controlling Gray Palmer, whom we don't see till the second act) after mutual stories of adultery lead to an estrangement. She's abandoned with just a closet of ridiculously expensive gowns, a mattress and crushed cans of resuscitative diet soda everywhere. The socialite and chronic volunteer is too traumatized and ashamed to go outside, but the grimy world reaches out to her when burglars Bo (Holly Hickman) and Robbie (Stephen Madrid) bust in to rob the place. Pleadings and deceptive histories are exchanged once the pistol switches hands, and slowly a common goal is reached--Wib's new gated-community digs contain the goods that all three want to get their hands on.

Martin's show could be as sitcommy facile as it sounds, especially considering a happy, cooperative ending between two disparate, distrustful types that stretches credulity for a comedy that aspires to stark social realism--there are some very dark explanations spoken here of life on the Chicago street outside Ata's once-privileged quarters. But director Crawford conducts Hickman as the amoral grifter Bo through those unflinching accounts of addicted children and jail rape so they're smoothly incorporated into a larger duet of contrasts. Comparisons between the plights of the desperate Bo and Ata, tragically aware of her own underachievements and general insignificance, come off without us rolling our eyes at some condescending lesson about how money buys unhappiness. Hickman has tailored her scruffy role to fit like a million-dollar suit, and, in perhaps the biggest compliment anyone can pay an actor, she's utterly unrecognizable from her last major part in Allied's The Weir. The equally marvelous Banks as Ata has her own tales to tell--that of living in soulless harmony with a husband whose taste in clothes, cars, furnishings, magazines, politics and ideas is massacred in one long, ovation-earning monologue. Banks delivers it wide-eyed and a little fearful, with the gloriously ornate verbosity of a woman just learning to use the words her expensive education has taught her. Banks seems truly to be just discovering the caustic final diatribe she's learned for Criminal Hearts as we watch her--it soars with a precious moment-of-truthfulness, regardless of which equipment Martin has between "her" legs.

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.

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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Jimmy Fowler