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News From the Colonies

Roy Arcenas' set is mostly effective; inky blue scrims painted with stars and a moon evoke, under the right lighting, a sumptuous Indian night. And the dak bungalow, the palace, and the stuccoed bungalow wall emerging from the wings have the sort of detail that enriches a production. By contrast, it's the playwright's failed sense of when detail doesn't enrich a show that sinks Indian Ink so disappointingly. The play suggests Stoppard hasn't stepped beyond pedantry in his writing.

The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae also starts with a lot of promise. It opens with the bailiff saying, "All -- rise!" and then the trial judge (C. Kelly Wright) comes out, folding her robes, stops short, and stares at the audience. "What kind of a way is that to act in my courtroom?" she says (I'm paraphrasing), because no one in the audience has risen. "I'm going to go back into my chambers and we're all going to try this again." So the audience is the jury -- an interactive play? Well, at least a funny play.

The Short-Sighted Black Woman is a brassy, modern video engineer named Victoria Dryer (Tina-Marie Murray), who resents the Hollywood images of Mammy and Sapphire -- the hag-and-whore stereotypes of black American womanhood -- especially in one film called No Diamonds for Sapphire, an awful old Technicolor thing about Southern plantation slaves, which somebody plays at an office party. Mammy Louise (Margarette Robinson) is the matron-slave of the plantation, a "self-sacrificing, sexless, superstitious woman who can cook," the plaintiffs charge -- and there she sits, on the defense side, with a bright red head-wrap, a Bible, and a shawl. Safreeta Mae (Thea-Marie Perkins) is "sexy and evil," the master's mistress, sitting next to Mammy in a frilly dress, cleavage spilling into the courtroom. She has long, straightened hair and flirts with the jury. Victoria's lawyer accuses them of "willful conspiracy, with chroniclers of history and the media," to limit Victoria's career, because some people in her office apparently made fun of her after seeing the film.

The argument that unfolds isn't as simple as you might think. The defense points out that Victoria herself has helped to scatter these stereotypes, because she helped convert No Diamonds for Sapphire to videotape. Mammy argues, late in the trial, that she wasn't just a servile woman; she actually poisoned her master's food. ("I ain't never been in no motion pictchuh!" she hollers. "My story ain't nevuh been told!") Victoria turns out to be a middle-class black woman who wants to ignore slavery, who isn't interested in the ugly side of American history. But all the characters are finally just interested in images, how they are portrayed on the screen, and in the long run this isn't a deep human concern. It's fodder for debate, not drama.

That leaves the debate itself: Since none of the courtroom players sprung from the gallery of stereotypes seem fully human (almost excepting Mammy), and since there's no story line beyond the unfolding trial, the debate must carry the production. It needs to be hilarious, fresh -- but it's not. Though it touches on a few good points, it's largely a debate we've heard before. It ends with the massive Colonial flag in the background of the courtroom superimposed on a mast and sail, while the cast recites a list of slave-ship names. More stage pedantry, worthy of Stoppard, at the expense of honest juice.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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