The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae. By Marcia Leslie. Directed by Paul Carter Harrison. Starring Deborah Edwards, Tina-Marie Murray, Margarette Robinson, and C. Kelly Wright. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through March 14. Call 474-8800.
Since when is it "Indian ink"? For as long as I can remember, the name of the pigment made from lampblack and known for its tendency not to fade has always been "India ink," because of a persistent rumor that it was developed in India. Leaving off that n is just a fine point I learned in school and for some reason never forgot. But it turns out to be an American fine point, and since Tom Stoppard is British, his newest play uses the British version of the name of the ink. I need to clear this up because the current ACT performance is the premiere of Indian Ink on American soil, and because you won't find it clarified in the program notes, and because it wouldn't be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.
He hasn't, thank God. Indian Ink is about the British empire. A fictional English poet named Flora Crewe travels to a fictional state in India -- "Jummapur" -- in 1930, partly for her health and partly because she's an adventurous flapper chick. Simultaneously (in stage time), a blowhard American scholar in the mid-'80s tries to find a portrait of Flora painted by a (fictional) Indian artist, Nirad Das. We watch Flora meet Das in 1930 and sit for her portrait. We also watch Eldon Pike, the scholar, have tea with Flora's elderly sister in London as he tries to learn what he can about the now-dead poet's life. Das' son, Anish, also visits the sister in London, looking for an erotic portrait. The back-and-forth between decades sets up questions and revelations; it's a clever device Stoppard used in Arcadia, and his late habit of putting cleverness at the service of a concept, instead of into the concept itself, gives Indian Ink a richness that leads to very high expectations.
The heart of the play is the Sanskrit notion of rasa, or "juice," which refers not only to plants and fruits but also to art. The ancient idea is still alive in Indian aesthetics: A work of art must have some essential charge of feeling -- rasa -- which begins in the artist but lives mostly in the connoisseur. While Das paints Flora he says, "My painting has no rasa today," and eventually gives up the piece for a more delicate work of erotic symbolism. There are nine traditional elements of rasa, from the comic to the erotic; each has a corresponding color, and the one matching eroticism is blue-black, or roughly the shade of India ink.
So the play has erudition and sex. So far so good. And the first half really is a graceful work of theater, with Stoppard's trademark humor sprinkled over a wide and warmly rendered cast of characters. Flora Crewe, who embodies sassy flapper-rasa, is played with the right balance of tartness and charm by Susan Gibney; Ken Grantham does a convincing job as the floundering, rasa-ignorant Eldon Pike; David Conrad is a taut and iron-assed British military man; Anish and Nirad Das are both graceful images of cultured-but-servile India, played by Firdous Bamji and Art Malik (who originated the Nirad role in London). And Jean Stapleton plays Flora's sister, Eleanor, the Thatcherish and philistine old lady who keeps the portrait of Flora in her attic because it seems too gaudy and "Indian" to her.
The first act isn't perfect. Gibney starts a little overeagerly as Flora, and on the night I was there Stapleton couldn't or wouldn't project, here and there fumbling a line, though she did Eleanor with enough natural humor to make the role colorful.
During the second half, though, it becomes sickeningly clear that Stoppard has hung his three-hour play on not much more than the quest for a work of art. This is normal for him but also boring. In a shorter play it would work, since Indian Ink has romance and political drama -- we hear rumors of Gandhi marching to the sea, to protest the salt tax -- but the complications of reassembling Flora's biography and the confusion of not just two but three paintings floating in and out of Eldon Pike's mad quest has exactly the effect that Stoppard is trying to satirize: the annihilation of artistic rasa by pedantic detail-mongering. When Pike steps into scenes of Flora's life and footnotes, with obnoxious commentary, some of the names or details Flora mentions while she talks to Das or writes a letter home, the effect would be funnier if we didn't have to follow everything he says -- if those footnotes didn't contain plot points. But they do. By the third hour it's obvious the play would require a really good story to compensate the audience for the strain of keeping up; but the story isn't quite that good, and it's diluted by the overlong treatment.
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