Robert O'Hara received his local debut almost four years ago when ACT produced Insurrection: Holding History, his wild political fantasia about slavery with the title that sounds like a nonfiction book. The play followed a gay, African-American grad student and his 189-year-old grandfather back in time to an 1831 plantation on the eve of Nat Turner's revolt. Characters shifted roles like figures in a dream: A slave girl strutted around in a plantation wife's dress, and the grad student, Ron, tried to prevent Turner's bloody rebellion because he knew it would wreck the Southern abolitionist cause (and keep slavery in place for decades). It was a provocative scramble of history and politics; it was also the first play in a trilogy that continues with Brave Brood, now under O'Hara's direction at the new Transparent Theater in Berkeley. Brood is a modern thriller about prostitutes, with no surface link to Insurrection, and anyone who remembers the bright, outrageous colors in the first play will be surprised by the somber darkness of the second.
This is not a criticism: Brave Brood has a stark and quiet power. Dr. Anne Bellington, a liberal-minded therapist, is letting three black streetwalkers and one white hustler (who call her Ms. Anne) live in her house until they can save enough to escape prostitution. This arrangement seems humane and reasonable to everyone but a belligerent lawyer, who occasionally interrupts the story to cross-examine the doctor. The doctor's setup looks to him like a whorehouse. The ground under his questioning shifts gradually from a conventional moral point of view to the standpoint of a murder prosecutor, and the unfolding story shows us why.
In the first half of the play, Ms. Anne seems to be a noble-hearted woman defending her household with as much grim determination (if not as much style) as Mrs. Warren, the madam in Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, who defends her business on the grounds that marriage in Victorian society is also a sex-for-money deal. Because of the playfulness of Insurrection, I was hoping O'Hara would jostle a few contemporary ideas about sex work. Maybe he wants to argue for safe, legalized prostitution? The program offers statistics that might be a cry for justice. “Substance abuse among street walkers in the United States = 84%,” it says, compared with, “Substance abuse among indoor prostitutes = 16%.” Is he presenting Ms. Anne as a cutting-edge savior? The lawyer begins to sound like a devil's advocate on this point. He wants to know if Ms. Anne takes money from her family of prostitutes. Is she, perhaps, exploiting them?
Just as this argument gets interesting, it changes shape. Legalized whorehouses never come into the equation, and O'Hara sidesteps his own political challenge by turning the play into a Tarantino-style murder mystery. The outcome of the drama lacks the political echoes promised by all those statistics, and what happens to Ms. Anne, in the end, could happen to anyone (or to anyone taking such a risk). There's nothing actively wrong with the result, but after so much swagger Brave Brood turns out to be nothing more than a sad, suspenseful tale.
Melvina Jones does brilliant work as Shonell, the streetwalker who turns into a crazily grieving mom. Ben Sharples is nuanced as the sensitive, simple-minded hustler Baltimore, and Edris Cooper plays a funny Marie, the foulmouthed prostitute who wants to start a hair salon. But Paula Barish establishes a center of gravity as Ms. Anne. She's a marvelously unflappable, dowdy figure in short hair, glasses, and pearls. “Your words don't shock me,” she says to the lawyer, who likes the word “whorehouse.” “You don't have to shoot them at me as if you expect me to dodge them.”
This production is a West Coast premiere and therefore a coup for the Transparent group, which opened for business only two months ago in a converted South Berkeley church. O'Hara lives in New York but came out here to direct; he's orchestrated a tight, impressive show, full of shadow, on a bare stage that resembles a cave more than Ms. Anne's living room. The trilogy to which this play belongs starts in the past with Insurrection, moves to the present in this installment, and finally pitches forward to an imagined time when Congress repeals the 14th Amendment (in -14: An American Ma(u)l, produced last year by ACT Conservatory). All three plays deal with slavery, sex, and freedom, and the only disappointment in Brave Brood is O'Hara's failure to sound a surprising variation on these old American themes.