Vocal Talent

The second Bay Area Afro Solo Performance Festival took up residence for one brief weekend (ending last Sunday) at the New Performance Gallery. While the two nights I attended (Friday and Sunday) were somewhat uneven, the sheer anticipation of seeing a variety of performers generated enormous energy and enthusiasm in the audiences. This was a family affair, or a gathering of the village, as set forth in the introductory remarks by festival producer (and performer) Thomas R. Simpson.

Thursday's opening featured new works from Simpson, Elizabeth Summers, Robert Henry Johnson, and Dee Dee Russell. Saturday was reserved for “In Other Words …,” an evening with the incomparable Ruby Dee. For me the highlights were Friday's premieres of new work from Nena St. Louis and Lester C. Jones.

Nena St. Louis' piece, Do You Want to Buy My Brain? (directed by Kikelomo Adedeji), was a frequently hilarious, often touching portrait of a woman with a personality disorder, her psychiatrist, and her invasive “other” personality, called Susan. St. Louis negotiated this territory carefully and skillfully, and the segment in which she used a long wait for a New York City subway as a chance to relieve the screaming anxiety in her head was explosively funny. Not only did she make the character accessible, she also added a special sheen of don't-mess-with-me spirit that both dignified the woman's difficult life and revealed her humanity. It was a bravura performance, and one of the few I saw at this year's fest that did not rely on generic “black characters” such as preachers or narrow-minded church ladies.

Lester C. Jones' A Rabbit in a Hat was spirited and playful if a bit overlong. He bounced onto the stage wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and overalls, with a large red bandanna flowing from a pocket. His mood was infectious and irresistible, at least in small doses. He chatted the audience up with comments on the news and a mildly amusing audience-participation gimmick before going into a marvelous bad-boy-with-watermelon segment. Unwrapping a large gift box, he carved up a huge melon and literally buried his face in its red, meaty flesh before exulting, “I's so happy.”

I'd have been content had he ended there, but Jones continued with his version of a revivalist preacher, the Rev. (many names) Jones-Something. The piece wanted to achieve transcendence in its invocation of the Lord to “remember crack cocaine” among other tragedies and “break these chains,” but it lacked focus and managed only to mean well.

Another high point of Friday's show was a piece by Luana titled Mama, based on Evelyn Fairbanks' The Days of Rondo. Luana is a beautiful dancer, a tall, muscular woman with expressive hands and a luminous face. She used movement to accompany a voice-over narration from Fairbanks' memoir about her adoptive mother, but the work came together best when Luana herself spoke of her own mother's last days in intensive care. She danced to Dionne Warwick's recording of “I Say a Little Prayer for You,” and managed to infuse a piece of pop kitsch with genuine feeling. It was truly lovely.

The evening also featured Felix Justice in an evocative portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Let Us Have Peace, in which Justice dramatizes (with varying success) King's recollections of an early crisis of faith.

Sunday's finale was marred by the absence of Carl Stokes Jr., whose illness prevented his scheduled appearance. This may have misled the other performers into trying to fill the gap by lengthening their segments, but in every case, brevity would still have been the soul of wit.

Most notable Sunday was Wayne Corbitt, a commanding, elegant, sensuous gay man whose Romance on a Rock, a tribute to a beautiful but sadistic “opportunistic crackhead … Puerto Rican street punk,” sets the brutality of life on drug-infested streets into a context of poetic lyricism.

Other performers included veteran storyteller Marijo, who recounted a long and mostly amusing anecdote about a devotedly religious elderly lady retrieving the ashes of a son who has died of AIDS. When Marijo was able to find her rhythm, she was confident, secure, and entertaining.

Avotcja's Song consisted of a highly personal poetry reading by Avotcja (pronounced “Avacha”) accompanied by various rhythm instruments. She's a performer of enormous strength and authority, and while her life experiences are evocative and instructive, her slightly rambling delivery diluted some of the effect.

Thomas R. Simpson's segment from Still Headin' fo' da' Promise Land concluded the festival. As Lester, he gave an illuminating performance as a “good” middle-class black whose rage at the verdict in the Rodney King trial takes him by surprise.

The Boys From Syracuse is Rodgers and Hart's playful adaptation of Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors, in which two sets of twin brothers separated at birth mistakenly invade each other's lives, get taken for each other, and finally meet. Both masters are named Antipholus and both slaves are called Dromio, so it's no wonder that they can move back and forth with such ease. In his book for this frothy musical, playwright George Abbott makes light work of any niggling problems the audience might have with logic by saying, “If it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for us.”

Fair enough. Add some of Rodgers and Hart's best songs — “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can't Be Love” to name two — and you should have pure delight. But as produced by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, the result is a well-intended if ultimately limp evening. Despite strengths such as the masterful casting of the twins — the two Dromios (Colin Thomson and Bob Greene) were uncannily alike — director Albert Takazauckas has managed to flatten the comedic impulse wherever it tries to raise its head. This show is pure froth and, as such, cries out for lively and imaginative staging. But the hapless cast is left standing in place for the most part, mugging to indicate jokes. They get little help from Lawrence Pech's choreography, which ranges from beginner-basic to elementary. The massively clunky set by J.B. Wilson shrinks the playing area, as though it were literally trying to fill in the gaps where the ideas should be.

There are bright spots in the company, though. Especially Bob Greene, whose Dromio was inventive and charming. Lisa Peers, who sounds very like a young Ethel Merman, stands out as Luce, the wife of the other Dromio, and Greg Raffelson excels as Antipholus from Syracuse.

But there's definitely something wrong with a show whose high point is the musical entr'acte. Thanks to the piano virtuosity of musical director Kevin Cole, everyone in the theater wakes up, if only for a brief shining moment.

The Boys From Syracuse plays through Sept. 10 at Presentation Theater in S.F.; call 392-4400.

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