Down but Not Out | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Down but Not Out 

Four beaten-down women fight back in two Pearl Cleage one-acts.

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2 BY PEARL: HOSPICE & LATE BUS TO MECCA ECLIPSE THEATRE COMPANY

WHEN Through 9/2: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln

PRICE $18-$22

INFO 773-871-3000

Playwright Pearl Cleage draws portraits of African-Americans in search of both their creative muse and a place to call home, free of oppression and doubt. But the path to these goals isn't clear: she knows that finding one's place in the sun sometimes means casting a shadow over the lives of others.

Eclipse Theatre Company brings together four fine actors in "2 By Pearl," a pair of one-acts by the Detroit-bred, Atlanta-based Cleage that hint intriguingly at the motifs she would explore more fully in plays like Flyin' West (1992), given a sterling production by Court Theatre earlier this year, and Blues for an Alabama Sky (1995), the first play in Eclipse's all-Cleage 2007 season. (That show cleaned up handily at the Jeff Awards ceremony last month.) These one-acts are not brilliant reinvestigations of the dramatic form, but Cleage's sharp-elbowed dialogue provides ample opportunity for actors to pull out all the stops, and that's what the women onstage here mostly do.

Cleage generally likes her women mouthy and complicated. This is most obvious in Hospice: Alice, a celebrated but bitter poet, is cared for by her 30-year-old pregnant daughter, Jenny, whom Alice abandoned when she was ten to enjoy the bohemian life in 1960s Paris. (One character in Cleage's Harlem Renaissance-era Blues for an Alabama Sky longs to move to Paris, and the abusive poet manque in Flyin' West, set in Kansas, greatly prefers his expat life in London.) Hospice takes place in 1983 (when it was also first produced), in the comfortably shabby home of Alice's late mother, who helped raise Jenny when Alice abandoned her and the girl's father. Now in the last stages of cancer, Alice resents Jenny's ministrations and taunts her about her attempts at "schoolgirl poetry" and her future as a single mother. She also makes it abundantly clear to Jenny, a film critic, that there will be no Hollywood-style rapprochement between them and accuses her of wanting "to make a fairy tale" out of her impending death. What Jenny gets instead is a whole lot of harsh truth spit out between doses of painkiller, washed down with sweet wine.

Alice is a welcome antidote to the stereotype of the noble, long-suffering black woman of unshakable faith, brilliantly sent up by George C. Wolfe in "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play" in The Colored Museum. As played by Tanya Lane, Alice is one seriously pissed-off woman with no intention of going gentle into that good night. Calling Jenny "sister" with an insinuating smirk emphasizes the lack of connection between them. And when Jenny asks once too often if Alice is OK, she snaps, "I'm not anywhere in the vicinity of 'OK' and I'm not going to be for the rest of the time you know me."

What has made Alice so hard--other than dying in her late 40s and getting cheated out of a whole lot of life--isn't clear. Jenny's description of her as "a world-weary, cynical, wisecracking caricature of an expatriate" is too pat--an indication of Cleage's tendency toward self-conscious cleverness early in her career. Ultimately Alice's search for fulfillment as a woman and an artist has been unsatisfying, but we're not sure if that's because of her punishing intelligence or her inability to let go of her defenses. "Ordinary people often mistake courage for insanity," she tells Jenny. "It frightens them." The irony is that Jenny is the truly brave one, willing to raise a child alone, to forgive the mother who left her, and to look for her own artistic voice despite living under Alice's shadow.

Cleage doesn't give Jenny quite the same depth as Alice, however, and on opening night Noelle Hardy seemed to be struggling with the tempo of her lines. But director Chuck Smith, who's shown an affinity for the lacerating wit of hyperarticulate black artists in two of Lydia Diamond's plays (The Gift Horse and Stick Fly), understands Cleage's sensibility and gives these performers plenty of room to breathe: I suspect the characters will get bigger and more resonant during the run.

The two actors in Late Bus to Mecca, first produced in 1992, are already firing on all cylinders. Directed by Thomas Jones, this piece is a delight from start to finish. Alana Arenas and Francis Wilkerson will be trading off the roles, but it's hard to imagine the switch given how beautifully each woman performed on opening night.

Arenas--a new Steppenwolf ensemble member--played ABW, an acronym for "A Black Woman." She has no other name, and she never speaks during the 40-minute play, set in 1970 in a Detroit bus station. But with her expressive face she delivers a reactive performance that's a masterpiece of carefully calibrated understatement. The talking role is Ava Gardner Johnson, a flashy hooker on the run from her pimp. He wanted her and a colleague to incorporate dogs into their bedroom act, and though Ava is generally an accommodating sort, she points out to ABW that "animals is different." Ava is leaving on the midnight bus to Georgia, hoping to pick up some big-spending clients at Muhammad Ali's comeback bout against Jerry Quarry. "You sell people what they want, you can always get what you want," she says.

As Ava, Wilkerson delivers rapid-fire proclamations on everything from her namesake (whom she insists was black passing for white) to her pimp: she gradually realizes he wasn't such a good dude. These unfold in a series of blackouts punctuated by projected titles featuring a comic Ava-ism from the next scene. It's highly reminiscent of David Mamet's The Duck Variations, about geezers on a park bench. But there's great tenderness in Ava. Though she seems like the sort of person who never shuts up long enough to notice anyone around her, she figures out a few things about ABW, eventually surmising that this disheveled, sullen woman is on the run from a mental hospital. "They just took all of it, didn't they?" she says. "Every last bit and then they turned you out."

Whether Ava is offering ABW a sandwich or trying to give her an ersatz makeover, Wilkerson is maternal in ways that neither woman in Hospice even approaches. Ava simply refuses to take no for an answer: she's going to save ABW, and the other woman has no choice but to go along for the ride. When she and ABW finally head out together for Georgia--a "mecca" as Ava sees it--it's a moment of uncloying sweetness, cleansing the excoriating bitterness of Hospice. Separately these shows are slight gems, but together each makes the other shine more brightly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Hospice photo by Betsy Lent.

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