All Talk and No Action

A trio of solo performances shows the degree to which performers can hit -- or miss

Most of us are eager for a chance to walk a mile or so in someone else's unfamiliar shoes. While obvious economic reasons underlie the continued interest in producing solo endeavors, their success seems to arise from a continuing fascination with other people's stories. Solo performance seems uniquely suited to the outsider, giving voice, as it usually does, to the experiences of people who traditionally have been invisible or second-class. Such as women. Such as people of color. Such as gays and lesbians. Two fine solo works playing in repertory as The Road Home, nurtured in the annual “Taking Shape” series sponsored by Brava! for Women in the Arts, chart the experiences of women who have added expatriate to that list.

Foster Field, written and performed by Elizabeth Summers (gracefully directed by Amy Mueller), is the life journey of a black woman who, as a child, was part of early desegregation efforts and was consequently bused from inner-city Chicago to the wealthy white suburb of Evanston to attend school. The piece dramatizes the conflict that resulted: to remain in the ghetto or to leave; to risk accusations of betrayal in order to “better” herself; to suffer the consequences of “talking black and sleeping white.”

Beginning with a solemn, candlelit procession, Summers — accompanied by the trio referred to as Ms. Clotilde's Amen Chorus (Shakiri, Cara Page and Mary Holland) — sings of arriving at an unnamed destination, which is clearly the territory of the past. She's a large woman, dressed in deep red, who moves with the ease of a ballet dancer and lets her words ring like music. The candles are placed at a modest alter as if to bear witness to who she is, where she's come from and how she longs to return to those roots. She tells us of the confusion of being a guest in white homes where women from her neighborhood work as maids: to see the pillars of the black community addressed by their first names. To realize that her new classmates' fathers were not garbage men, streetcar conductors or seasonal mosquito-control workers. She adds that it isn't until later that she recognizes the signs of child abuse in these privileged homes.

The piece then begins splitting its attention between Summers' story (which eventually takes her to Europe as the mistress of a wealthy white man) and her desire to pay tribute to the women in her family who influenced her early years. The recurring dramatic tenet that suggests she's a traitor to her people (having attended a white school and made friends with white classmates) begins to feel imposed on what is really a straightforward memoir. And the nostalgic message that white society is all bad and black society all good seems unnecessarily simplistic.

This work has a literary sensibility to it rather than a theatrical one, language being the primary vehicle for delivery of Summers' story. But by adding the theatrical dynamics of Ms. Clotilde's Amen Chorus, Summers and director Mueller have created a satisfyingly multidimensional stage work that pulses with life all the way through.

Living in Spanish (directed by Antigone Trimis) is Greta S‡nchez Ram’rez's bittersweet story of leaving her native Venezuela for Berkeley, where her mother moved her at age 9 after divorcing Greta's wayward father. While similar in design to Foster Field — both start in the present and consciously evoke the past — this piece uses music and dance to set the mood and scene. Ram’rez's monologue is accompanied by the onstage percussion of composer Hector Lugo.

A privileged Caracas childhood is recalled as if it were a long, dreamy, sunny day, abruptly and somewhat capriciously terminated by her mother's discovery of another woman. We learn of the decision to move to Berkeley, chosen for its progressive political outlook; we hear of envious Caracas classmates who assume everything in the U.S. is next-door to “Deesney World.”

The show turns from the Americanization of Greta to her mother's cancer diagnosis and early death, and winds up exploring the middle kingdom of the sometimes-disoriented expatriate who must alternate between “living in English and living in Spanish.” While Ram’rez's delivery is delightful, the piece seems composed of the fluff of memory that has been trotted out to charm us rather than for any real dramatic purpose.

Ram’rez is young — she distinguished herself last fall playing a child in Night Train to Bolinas — and to create a work (even one as entertaining as this) based on her relatively short life seems to underscore her lack of life experience. In other words, she is still at the beginning of her own story; it's too soon to make assessments about it.

In another kind of solo performance, actor Brian Thorstenson portrays a variety of characters in his one-man play, Heading South. A slender montage of scenes that tries to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts, Heading South introduces us in quick succession to the following: a gay model-turned-waiter who is just emerging from mourning the death of his lover; a possibly psychotic physicist-turned-cab-driver who is being bombarded by vibrations of light and sound; another possible psycho who is the above-named cabbie's passenger and who stops off at sex clubs to look for his probably imaginary gay brother; an egocentric architect who invites the waiter on an unsuccessful date; and a schoolteacher from Idaho who has decided to move to San Francisco to explore his gay sexuality.

Thorstenson manages to create an affecting mood by the end, but the scenes themselves are underdeveloped and fail to build dramatic momentum. Shifts between characters are awkward and confusing, and the ground he wants to cover seems well-trod indeed. The show owes much to Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, but falls far short of that model.

Heading South intends to allow us to drop in on lives in crisis and transition — the title refers to a flock of migrating geese seen by the teacher who has been gay-bashed — and to derive courage and inspiration from people who are not opting for easy answers. I wish that Thorstenson had followed their example.

Foster Field and Living in Spanish continue through June 4 at Climate Theatre in S.F.; call 626-9196. Heading South continues through June 10 at 450 Geary Studio Theater in S.F.; call


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