The Web of Myth

The poetic power of Ntozake Shange's colored girls; Sweeny seduces with pageantry; Bob Davis' Banjo

It has been 20 years since Ntozake Shange's ground-breaking for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf made its modest bow via the Berkeley cafe scene and went on to take the theater world by storm, earning a Tony on Broadway.

For colored girls testified to the presence of a previously invisible group, reason enough to admire it. But far from being relegated to token status, the show is the transcendent achievement of an accomplished poet. Shange is a writer of stature, a magician with words who can conjure, dazzle, inspire and amuse — apparently without effort. That she was among the first to capture the African American woman's voice onstage merely enhances the accomplishment.

The risks associated with mounting a venerable theatrical landmark such as this are legion. For one thing, it no longer stuns by its sheer originality. We've grown familiar with Shange's innovation — the autobiographical, personal performance piece. We have to remember that this show gave birth to a new form, and what we are seeing is not just another example of the genre. An added risk is expecting any revival to stand up to the reputation and celebrity of the original.

Which brings me to the 20th-anniversary production at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. It's such a heartfelt effort, and the show carries such a distinguished history, it's painful to say that under Stanley Williams' direction, it lumbers into low gear and threatens to stay there until very near the end, when it finally has moments of real power.

Beginning with the spell-inducing poem, “dark phases of womanhood,” the play proudly declares its intention “to sing a black girl's song.” It introduces each woman as from “outside” a different city; clearly, a black woman's habitat is always on the fringe. The poems tumble out, telling women's stories, mostly in relation to their men. We hear of sexual adventures on a graduation night, of being raped by men of the victim's acquaintance — “pressing charges against a friend is hard.” We get a history lesson about Toussaint, a Haitian insurrectionist who led a slave rebellion. We experience moving to Harlem, “a universe of six blocks of cruelty,” from the relative safety of the country. As performed here, all these poems shine in sporadic moments, but it isn't until “hands and holding” and the four “love poems” that the onstage energy begins to transform into theatrical power. “Somebody almost walked off with alla my stuff” isn't the showstopper it should be, but still packs a punch.

The ensemble of seven (Jan Crain-Hunter, Payge, Sherri Young, Karen Polk, Saun-Toy Latifa Trotter, Safi Tating and Katrina Hodrick LaShea) is pleasant enough. They're not strong dancers, however, which limits choreographer Danny Duncan's ability to create the author's intended “choreopoem.”

Shange has designated the various roles as “Lady in Yellow,” “Lady in Green,” etc. — each of the colors of the spectrum — thus distinguishing one from another while maintaining the unity of the ensemble. In the Hansberry production, the players are all costumed (no designer is credited) in identical flower-print dresses, giving the show a monochromatic look and making the performers virtually interchangeable. They seem also to have been directed (or choreographed) to flounce about and show their underwear as often as possible. Rather than coming across as playful or charming, this seems almost exploitative.

Still, for colored girls is a terrifically important work, and while I might have wished for a better production, it is a joy to have it here at all.

Macnas is an Irish “community -based arts and theater company” whose work draws on the Emerald Isle's ancient myths and folklore. Using dance, masks and music, they create vivid renderings of tales that are undoubtedly familiar to Irish audiences, but that here require the aid of a program synopsis — thankfully provided in the current Theater Artaud production of Sweeny.

Sweeny (Midie Corcoran) is an ancient tribal king who constantly battles his neighbors. He's interrupted in these exploits by the arrival of Catholic missionaries, led by a vengeful abbot (director Rod Goodall) who curses the king into madness and foretells his death by spear. Sweeny suffers a kind of ancient combat fatigue, becomes dis-oriented and retreats to the top of a tree, believing himself to be a bird. He achieves a pretty good life for himself — all except for an inconvenient inability to fly — until a band of marauders comes and steals his watercress. This shocks him into sanity for a while, and he returns home. But when his followers want to recrown him, Sweeny flees back to his tree, where he is finally dispatched, as promised, by dreaded spear.

It's hard to read the story and refrain from snickering, but the staging itself is so imaginative and energetic that the pageantry carries the evening. Corcoran has an arrestingly ascetic appearance, which gradually transforms him into a Christ figure as the tale unfolds. He becomes the slain savior of an ancient people whose culture is summarily destroyed by the church — which, according to Macnas' version, seized powerful pagan totems (such as the bird) and craftily adapted them for its own purposes.

Everything is accomplished via dance and mime, with nary a word spoken, and the extraordinary offstage band (Declan Gibbons, Alan Purves, Nuala Ni Chanainn, Fergal Gallagher and John Dunne) provides mood-setting accompaniment (vocal and instrumental). The performers are amazingly agile, especially Corcoran, who, as Sweeny, leaps from tree to rock to ground as though he actually were a bird. Petal Pilley is lovely and graceful as Sweeny's wife, Eorann.

Bob Davis has brought his Banjo to the Climate for a short but entertaining stay. That's banjo. BAN-jo, as he constantly reminds us. Bob Davis looks like a dentist or a shoe salesman or a hardware clerk. He's a middle-aged bald man with a winning smile who also happens to be an amazing musician on his instrument of choice, the — yes! — banjo.

Dressed in a striped shirt, bow tie and slacks with luminescent patent leather shoes, Davis gives the fascinating history of the instrument from its primitive beginnings — a snake skin stretched over a turtle shell with gut strings (“Recycle your enemies”) — all the way to its most recent heyday in the '70s. He could drop some of his material, such as the lame attempts at topicality, and add more straight playing, but as is, Banjo is one of a kind and a welcome breath of fresh air.

For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf runs through April 16 at S.F.'s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre; call 474-8800. Sweeny continues through April 2 at Theater Artaud in S.F.; call 392-4400. Banjo plays through April 15 at S.F.'s Climate Theatre; call 626-9196.

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