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.
Spunk has the same problem, except that most of the narrating happens within the story. It's another tale of infidelity and rage, with Spunk Banks fooling around with a woman named Lena right in front of her husband, a small "rabbit-footed" man named Joe. He goes at Spunk with a knife and gets shot. The rest of the story deals with Joe's ghost and the revenge he exacts, or may be exacting, from hell. The yarn is good but it doesn't work as a play, at least not the way it's been adapted here.
The sets look sharp, with straw on the ground and a wooden deck for Clarke's General Store, grain sacks, and an old cash register. Patricia Van Reed has a natural brightness and flair in both pieces as Josephine, the shop manager. Sean Vaughn-Scott does a good job as Walt in the second piece but seemed stiff on my night as Sykes; he was filling in for another actor in that role. Overall there's a creakiness about the show that's manifested in the narrator, the self-styled "Keeper of the Culture" who lords over these stories as if we might miss what's valuable about them without her schoolmarmish help. Well, we wouldn't. The narrating actually gets in the way. Sweat and Spunk are still rough-crusted diamonds, which could have been nicely polished with a nimbler adapting hand.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Boys Who Like Boys Who Like Girls
The Joe Goode Performance Group. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard, June 3-6.
In a continuing search for self -- his own self included -- Joe Goode keeps hammering away at what we're made of, what shapes our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and, ultimately, how accurate or even useful our perceptions are. At the outset of his new dance-theater piece Gender Heroes -- Part I, Goode posed a tantalizing question about identity that he attempted to answer in two of three pieces, and one that lingered after the performance was over. "What if we never find the perfect image of ourselves?" he mused aloud. "What if we have to make do with a glimpse here and there?"
Gender Heroes, based on interviews Goode conducted with local residents about who influenced their ideas of what men and women should be, offers glimpses of admirable humanity, although the narrators tend to find it in other people. As with other works by Goode, Gender Heroes is musically experimental and heavy on text and subtext, with a gay sensibility and the attendant attention to gender. The first comic bit, about a boy who receives red cowboy boots for Christmas but longs for his sister's fringed cowgirl skirt ("She doesn't even understand the nuance of how to let it drape," he complains to his unsympathetic parents), is all Goode, whether it's his own story or not. As this tragicomic tale of childhood confusion unfolds, the dancers (their faces hidden by asexual and vaguely threatening animal masks) perform a slow-motion acrobatic rolling sequence over footstools to the warped strains of carnival music.
From this faceless and uncertain world, we are launched into a Nevada desert scattered with tall coat-rack-like set pieces suggesting cacti. Two boys are running away from the Winnemucca Juvenile Facility; their pas de deux, which veers from rough-and-tumble to tender, is an affecting portrayal of people running for different reasons. The third tale, of Virginia dairy farming sisters, imparts a homespun appeal through broken-down and reconfigured folk music and the wistful testimony of a younger family member, who yearns to write as plainly and truthfully as the sisters live. Strings of rubber cow udders suspended from the ceiling add a comic touch, though one sister's monologue sounds uncomfortably like an urbanite impersonating country folk.
In his 1993 solo piece 29 Effeminate Gestures, Goode personalizes an internal struggle over gender identity and social demands. In one of the funniest and most strangely satisfying entrances in recent theatrical memory, a grinning Goode wanders through the audience dressed like an auto mechanic, giving an aggressive thumbs-up gesture and repeating the phrase "He's a good guy" with the rumbling cadence of an overheated engine, until he reaches the stage and inexplicably chain-saws a chair in half. He shifts abruptly from that cartoonish machismo into the title sequence, a series of feminine gestures like blown kisses and girlish waves, and though he repeats these gestures to different music and with different outfits, the implication is that they will always be wrong. "If you think too much," he drawls at one point in the sequence, "if you feel too much, if you enjoy" (pause for emphasis) "the aesthetic of ... too much," then, he concludes, these are your gestures, and you can expect that they will be met with widespread disapproval. There is even the suggestion of violence at the end, as Goode cradles a hand-held drill disconcertingly close to his head, although it isn't clear if he means to hurt himself or just disguise his feminine impulses with masculine trappings.
Whether Goode ever envisioned himself as Rock Hudson isn't really the point of Doris in a Dustbowl, a 1989 repertory work in which he plays Rock to Liz Burritt's Doris Day in a steady comic implosion of Hollywood pretense. With gestures and dialogue lifted directly from the stars' movies, Goode toys with the exaggerated gender roles assigned to Day and Hudson. Burritt flops about the stage like a rag doll in pink frills; she's Doris and fans who identified with Doris, both of whom were disappointed in the end. "I thought, Pajama Game," she moans, as Goode blows dust at her through a fan. "I thought, With Six You Get Eggroll."
Goode and Burritt's rowdy partnering, which ends as they roll around on the floor and cheerlessly paw at one other, is laced with a litany of ills, both mundane ("I can't keep a boyfriend") and symbolic: "It gets in your food," they say of the dust. "It gets in your silk pajamas. It gets in the children!" Goode's intent may not always come across, but in this case, there's no mistaking dust as disillusionment with the impossible world that popular entertainment promises us. Which brings us back to Heroes, and Goode's other memorably philosophic query: "What if nothing is the way it seems?" he asks. "What if we walk and walk until our feet get tired and we still have no answers?" If the adage is true, if life (and by extension, one's life-work) is a journey rather than a destination, I suspect that Goode will just keep walking.
-- Heather Wisner