Stage

The American Century
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. Adapted by Emily Mann from the book by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. Directed by Roberta Levitow. Starring Vinnie Burrows and Delores Mitchell. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through July 6. Call (510) 845-4700.

Alice Walker once said that it's "a wonderful time to be a black woman ... because the past is studded with sisters who, in their time, shone like gold. They give us hope, they have proved the splendor of our past, which should free us to lay just claim to the fullness of the future." In the dramatic adaptation of Sarah and Elizabeth Delany's best-selling autobiography Having Our Say, Berkeley Rep Director Roberta Levitow opens the door to the lives of these century-old African-American sisters who've struggled against racism to feel a sense of belonging in the United States.

We're invited into the home of Sadie, played by Delores Mitchell, and Bessie (Vinnie Burrows) in upstate New York, where they've lived, they tell us, since around the time when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat. While first picking through photos in the living room and then peeling yams for dinner (the stage pivots to show both rooms) they take us back -- through their coming of age in a Jim Crow South, their adulthood in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and finally their old age, which alone stretches from the civil rights era up to today's conservative backlash.

The sisters were destined to break color lines. Born in the 1890s, they learned to cope with an everyday repression -- though the racist South didn't repress Bessie, who giggles lightly as she recalls sipping from the "White" fountain, then noticing how it "tasted just like the Colored." In counterpoint, Sadie reminds us that such line-crossing could turn horrific; she tells of some local "Reb types" (white racists) who lynched a young African-American girl and brutally ripped her belly and unborn fetus apart. As Bessie and Sadie's odyssey continues, they mix memories of sadness and pleasure. Tears roll as Sadie recalls their late mother, Nanny Logan, who taught them the ABCs while cooking up a storm; they choke back a deeply felt sorrow for their brother, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack. However, they also find much to celebrate. Both remember fondly their father, Henry Delany, who single-handedly built their home and was the first African-American bishop elected to serve the Episcopalian Church. Bessie beams as she recalls graduating from Columbia's dental school; Sadie gleefully tells of duping a racially segregated New York high school system to become the first black woman to teach domestic sciences there. And they fondly revisit their friendships with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, who used Bessie's office to strategize for "Negro" rights.

Levitow's carefully choreographed interplay of body gesture and oral exchange, along with Mitchell's and Burrows' heartfelt, intimate performances, brings to the stage a strong sense of these two women: We feel as if they're our grandmothers too. We're not just meeting the Delany sisters here; we're meeting all those Bessies and Sadies who, ignored in the reckoning, continue in the struggle to make the future a place we might finally all be able to call home.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Neighbors
Zooman and the Sign. Written by Charles Fuller. Directed by Stanley Williams. Starring Teddy Love, Eloise Chitmon, Kelton Howard, and Wedrell James. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through June 8. Call 474-8800.

Every time Zooman comes onstage to explain why he doesn't feel responsible for killing a girl, a rap song plays on the sound system. The play is Charles Fuller's 1980 Zooman and the Sign, now at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater; the song is Tupac Shakur's "I Don't Give a Fuck." Zooman is a gangbanging kid who shot a 12-year-old black girl by accident while she was sitting on her own porch. "I Don't Give a Fuck" is his leitmotif. His opinion is that the girl shouldn't even have been outside -- he was only trying to shoot his enemy, Gustav, anyway. The girl's mother, Rachel Tate (Eloise Chitmon), knows that a few neighbors saw the crime, but they all fail to cooperate with the police. Her husband, Reuben (Wedrell James), hangs a sign over the door: "The killers of our daughter Jinny are free on the streets because our neighbors will not identify them." This upsets the neighbors.

The play is a grim drama about responsibility, undercut by Rachel's funny cousin Ash (Thea-Marie Perkins), who runs off at the mouth in her bright Southern voice. When Reuben talks about the street's lack of community, she declares, "I blame a lot of this on food stamps." Food stamps have let black people isolate themselves and buy junk food and get fat, she says. In the old days there were community cookouts and good solid food -- "our bust lines an' our hips was legendary!" she says and strokes herself, writhing, while the audience hollers.

"I think Reuben's talking about something else," Rachel says dryly.
The story is told efficiently on a stage with the graffiti-tagged corner of a brick building on one side and the Tates' living room, behind a screen, on the other. A few scenes in the living room drag with uneven acting, but they don't ruin the powerful script. Teddy Love turns in the best performance as Zooman, swaying while he talks, wild-eyed, in a hooded Citibank sweat shirt -- he can't feel remorse but he can be eloquent, giving street-talk speeches about injustice that echo the rage in Tupac's rap. The play ends after he sees the sign and announces himself outside the Tates' window. A pistol bought by their teen-age son, Victor (Gary Nesbitt), goes off, and I don't think it spoils anything to say that most of the crucial questions -- about revenge, about gangsta rap and violence -- are left open by the liveliness of Zooman's character. Only on the subjects of cowardice and responsibility is the play unambiguous.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Shadows of a Doubt
In Xanadu. Written by Zara Houshmand and Larry Reed. Directed by Reed. Starring Reed and Belinda Sullivan. Music and sound by Miguel Frasconi. Presented by ShadowLight Productions at the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, May 21-25. Call 648-4461.

"In Xanadu" are the opening words to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem "Kubla Kahn," written not after a trip to China but after an opium dream. And In Xanadu is an epic-size shadow play about Mongolia that Larry Reed's ShadowLight Productions put on, fleetingly, at the Cowell Theater. Reed is one of the few Americans who can say he's "worked in shadow theater for over three decades" -- shadow theater being a form of puppetry played with shapes behind a backlit screen -- and the style he's mastered is a Balinese discipline called wayang kulit. As a preface to Xanadu, he recently put on a couple of traditional wayang kulit shows in South Park recently, one-puppetmaster affairs lit flickeringly by a coconut-oil torch, with Reed alone doing every voice and manipulating all the puppets across a screen of thin, taut leather. Those plays were weird. Reed seemed to be winging his story lines, and his Balinese-looking shapes spoke both Indonesian and wise-ass American, making sly references to Jack Davis' whiskey-bottle party while they chased a princess.

In Xanadu, though, is different. It's been a work in progress at ShadowLight for at least four years. The troupe's taking the show to South Carolina's Spoleto Festival; the four performances at the Cowell were a kind of farewell-to-San Francisco, pre-festival trial run. The traditional leather skin was replaced by a broad white screen, the coconut oil by four xenon arc lamps. The main characters -- "Khubilai" Khan and his wife, Chabui -- were played by live masked actors (Reed and Belinda Sullivan) behind the screen; and the story, this time, felt tight and clear. It followed Chabui's life in her husband's enlightened court, where she exercised a strong and sensible influence on the Khan as his "right hand ... his even hand," although in real life she was probably not quite as liberated as Reed and his co-writer, Zara Houshmand, make her seem. That's my only criticism, in fact. Their version of life in the largest empire in human history suffers from the same ethereal lyricism as Coleridge's. The script tries to hail Xanadu at any expense, and except for a mule that farts in Marco Polo's face the story has none of the earthiness that Reed showed off in South Park.

But the shadow-casting is hypnotic. When the Mongolian army goes marauding, puppets and live actors fight in vivid 13th-century armor, with halberds and pikes clashing over a live percussion background of wood blocks, glasses, and tambourines. (Miguel Frasconi composed the excellent score.) When Khan meditates, noisy horsemen and counselors spill from his head. And when Chabui dies, she's carried on the back of a fabulous bird through the underworld, with Khubilai and a shaman chasing her past dragons and mythical wolves, riding along luminous bands of light and other shadow-tricks until Khubilai catches her, only to kiss a face that turns, horribly, into a skull. This is the real focus of the story. When Chabui finally fades, Khubilai sees the limits of his power, and his empire starts to set, fleeting as a shadow.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Playing Around
PlayGround Emerging Playwrights Festival. Directed by James Kleinmann, Antigone Trimis, Amy Glazer, John Warren, and Kent Nicholson. Starring Assaf Cohen, Wendy Wilcox, Keiron Edwards, and Delia MacDougall. At A Traveling Jewish Theater, May 12-18. Call 399-1809.

Last September the PlayGround project mounted a series of staged readings by unknown writers with the idea of holding a festival at the end to give the five best scripts a full production, and their authors a flattering debut. So the first PlayGround Emerging Playwrights Festival was a kind of public-announcement-of-the-contest-results, and the crowded room at A Traveling Jewish Theater was simmering, with flowers, friends and relatives, balloons, and nervous auteurs. Ancient Greece, of course, didn't lack drama contests. The atmosphere at the Dionysian festivals must have been the same, except for the balloons.

These plays had to be lean -- roughly 10 minutes long -- so three were written for man-woman pairs. Skittish, by Robert Barker, was a funny metatheatrical piece about a woman preparing for a monologue. When she screwed up, the director stepped in from the seats. "OK, this is about love," he said. "You've been sleepwalking, and you wake up in a pool of blood." (A swimming pool of blood.) The satire on acting and directing was good, but the speech the woman finally gave felt fingerprinted by Roland Barthes and the whole self-conscious, language-examining movement he spawned. "You will never know me," it ended, "because knowing is only a word."

Good Fools, Nice Women, by Garret Jon Groenveld, featured a couple in bed. The rather milquetoasty man asked, "Is there ever a time when the man is victimized?" and they argued about that for a while. Then the woman told an (untrue) story about getting raped; the man felt bad and left, and they gave a pair of interwoven musings that settled, redemptively, on the same building across the street. Not bad, but the emotion here felt crammed into the few allowable minutes and wasn't exactly earned.

As Juicy as You Want Me to Be by Daniele Nathanson dealt with a woman who thought she was a stick of gum. Her monologue told the history of her self-image, starting with "cupcake" and "Sweetart"; after she found feminism it morphed into "Rollo" (sweet inside but with a hard shell). After she fell in love with Jeff, though, he "licked off the chocolate coating," and she cast around for some new identity until she heard a certain commercial. "I have proudly been a piece of Doublemint gum for one year," she said -- long and sweet, low on calories -- but Jeff preferred other flavors of gum.

If that piece cloyed a little, it also wasn't bad, because the woman, played by Delia MacDougall, had a defined personality. Definition -- and possibly MacDougall -- made Crawling Out of Your Skin the strongest play of the evening. "Jessica" is a full-blooded character with a Southern accent, created by Mary Michael Wagner. She told a riveting story about getting abducted by a man with one fake eye, and a well-placed digression near the end starkly established where she was as she spoke (in an abortion clinic). The script would work as a written yarn, and in fact Wagner has won two national awards for short fiction.

Maybe the funniest play was Brackets, by Jen Anderson, about two young men in separate age brackets. The "18-24," reading Details, told the "25-35" about all the ways he conformed to his peers. (His entertainment system was in a cabinet; he owned a Polartec coat.) This kind of humor rots quickly -- in 10 years the brand names and magazine will have to be different -- but the audience laughed.

PlayGround started as a "partnership" with San Francisco State University, and so far the contest is still SFSU-heavy: All the winners except Anderson admit some connection to the school. But involving judges like Paul Walsh (dramaturge at ACT) makes it a significant thing to win, and it would be nice to see PlayGround become a long-standing, Bay Area-wide event, especially since the name is so cool.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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