Stage

Stonewall Jackson and Zora Neale
Stonewall Jackson's House. By Jonathan Reynolds. Directed by Amy Glazer. Produced by the Eureka Theater. Starring Starla Benford, Ron Faber, Wanda McCaddon, Michael Keys Hall, and Rebecca Dines. At the Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson (between Sansome and Battery), through June 13. Call 788-7469.

Sweat and Spunk. Stories by Zora Neale Hurston. Adapted by Dr. Mona Scott. Directed by Deborah Sherman Price. Produced by the Black Repertory Group. Starring Frances Michelle Moore, Sean Vaughn-Scott, and Patricia Van Reed. At the Black Repertory Group Theater, 3201 Adeline (one block south of Ashby BART), Berkeley, through June 12. Call (510) 652-2120.

Stonewall Jackson's House has a fearsome reputation as an assault on well-meaning liberal squeamishness in American theater, and the premiere in New York caused such an uproar two years ago that "no major city" -- according to Robert Brustein -- has had the guts to stage it since, until the Eureka took it on this season.

Jonathan Reynolds wrote a first draft of Stonewall in the early '90s, when the politically correct miasma hanging over the country was thickest, and couldn't get it staged. In 1993 Norman Mailer told him, "If you put this play on you'll be lynched," so Reynolds set it aside and eventually rewrote the Pirandellian second act so that Mailer's line now comes out of the mouth of one of his characters. You have to respect any writer who'll do that, even if his play isn't very good.

Stonewall starts with a tour of the Confederate general's house in Lexington, Va., where a black guide named LaWanda seems to hate her job. The tourists consist of a pair of Southern hicks and a pair of well-meaning liberals from Ohio. The liberal husband, Barney, sells insurance, and describes the couple's idyllic Midwestern life near a grassy college campus. After two goofy re-enactments of how slavery worked in the antebellum South comes the offending scene: LaWanda falls to her knees and begs to be taken back to Ohio to "slave it up" for the liberals. She's sick of making her own decisions, tired of the responsibilities of being free. At first Barney and his wife, Del, are shocked, but the idea grows on them, and they accept, with one stipulation. They don't like the word "slave." "How'd it be if we called you ... 'associate'?"

The scene is a satire on welfare, victim culture, and cautious leftish sensibilities in general. But the rest of the show gets away from race to deal with how these sensibilities restrain the theater. It's a cartoon from beginning to end, a deliberately corny vehicle for Reynolds' opinionated rants. The second half, showing a group of theater managers arguing about the first half, is all rant; everyone is hot-headed and furious. The woman who plays LaWanda, Starla Benford, also plays a black dramaturge defending the opening play with a stirring speech about black self-reliance. "More kindness [has been] dumped on us than all the assets of the Fortune 500," she declares -- could that even be close to true? -- and yet race and economic problems linger. Some people like to be oppressed, is her point, which she makes by removing the playwright's belt and pretending to strangle him, then straddling him on the floor. "All that tension vanished, insecurity gone ...," she says, gently rocking her hips.

Benford played LaWanda and the dramaturge in the original New York show, and does a polished job here in both roles. Wanda McCaddon moves from Midwestern wife to liberal stage prima donna (the villainess) with fervor and grace; Rebecca Dines also shifts neatly from white-trash Southerner to ironic Englishwoman. Ron Faber comes from the New York cast, too; he plays Barney with a shambling charm and gives his hard-pressed theater director in the second act a nice boiling-over urgency, especially in a tantrum about his Irish ancestors getting a penny an hour from plantation owners. The play ends its intemperate ranting with a comment on the way playwrights win success, money, and Pulitzers in our queasy time -- by flattering liberal orthodoxy -- and his satire is no less goofy than it is disturbing and true.

The Black Repertory Group might be a case in Reynolds' point, except that its racial focus hasn't won the company very much box office. Sweat and Spunk should bring people in if anything will, since they're both staged stories by a name writer, Zora Neale Hurston, but when I saw the shows there were eight people in the audience. The Black Rep seems to be working under a cloud.

Both stories take place in Eatonville, Fla., the all-black town Hurston re-created in her fiction. Sweat is about a hard-working woman named Delia married to a violent man, Sykes, who's sleeping around. Delia gives Sykes hell -- "That old snaggle-toothed woman ain't comin' 'round here while I'm sweatin' blood," she says -- and Sykes, hoping to get her out of his life, brings home a "present" of a rattlesnake in a picnic basket. The story is strong enough on its own, but Deborah Price's production has too much narration taken straight from Hurston's prose, and not enough strong acting. Hurston's prose is graceful, but more of it should have been folded into action onstage.

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