Race/Ends | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Race/Ends 

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RACE

Strawdog Theatre Company

ENDS

Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Plays with ideas are great. There are far too few of them around these days. But plays about philosophical ideas, written to express a point of view rather than tell a story, are almost always clunky and dull: dramatic intrigue is held hostage to the author's need to preach.

David Alex's Ends and Jamie Pachino's adaptation of Studs Terkel's Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession are first and foremost plays with axes to grind. Though both address a vital and compelling contemporary issue--the effects on American society of years of institutionalized racism--an excess of speechifying stalls just about every opportunity for drama. Speeches may rouse the rabble at political conventions, but they don't tend to inspire your average theatergoer.

Pachino was already at something of a disadvantage bringing Terkel's Race to the stage. A nonfictional, almost encyclopedic work in the usual Terkelian style--long monologues grouped together by theme--Race does not immediately strike the reader as theatrical. There are moments of gripping drama--the resignation of a woman who lost her son to senseless racial violence, for example, and the racist, ironically humorous patter of a working-class Bridgeport tough--but unedited the monologues are cumbersome and rambling. And despite the fact that all of them concern race relations, each one is a separate entity, and they can't be edited and spliced together to approximate theater dialogue.

Pachino tries a variety of approaches to create a cohesive series of scenes for this Strawdog Theatre Company production, but none is more than sporadically successful. Sometimes she lets the speeches stand on their own, editing only for a sense of timing and continuity. This provides some of the play's most effective moments, particularly when a schoolteacher named Mamie Mobley, beautifully played by Paulette McDaniels, describes how the white men who murdered her 14-year-old son were acquitted by an all-white jury in Mississippi. At other times Pachino weaves the threads of disparate monologues into a choral tapestry, a device that's by turn spine-tingling and overly mannered. Most often, though, Pachino tries to shoehorn monologues into dialogues, inventing scenes where there were none originally. This method is as unwieldy as it sounds, frequently producing exchanges between characters that are stiff and forced. What's valuable about Terkel's book is the way he captures instantly recognizable voices from everyday life. Cutting and pasting the words into scenes makes Terkel's urban reality into something phony.

Some actors in Strawdog's production shine. Carrie Hegdahl gives the part of a woman who's been shafted by affirmative inaction a sympathetic, impassioned reading. Timothy Jenkins is gleefully charismatic as a young urban rapper. And Michael A. Shepperd, in a variety of roles here, can always capture the attention of an audience. But much of this production, directed by Strawdog artistic director Richard Shavzin, has been miscast and is ill conceived.

The biographical information Terkel provided about his subjects has been largely ignored--the characters are anonymous voices who might be played by any actor. A retired police officer who put in nearly 40 years on the force comes across as a youthful upstart; a professional woman is performed as if her words were spoken by a teenager in detention. Sometimes Strawdog engages in its own forms of stereotyping. Was it my imagination, or did all the white racists speak with either south-side or country accents, while most of the white "progressives" spoke standard, accentless English? Many of the characterizations never rise above impersonations. Any reactionary or otherwise distasteful speech is recited with a winking irony and accompanied by the other cast members' sighing, sneering, and head shaking.

Trying to wring some drama from a dry script, Shavzin overdirects a number of scenes. In one particularly glaring instance, meant I suppose to achieve a semblance of naturalism, the actors deliver their speeches while talking on a cordless phone, skimming the Yellow Pages, or drawing in a sketchbook. Like much of the rest of the play, this represents an unsatisfactory attempt to convert real prose into real drama.

Addressing similar issues in Ends, David Alex starts with a more promising approach--at least his play has characters and a story. But the drama sputters to a halt when his philosophizing begins to dictate the characters' behavior and we realize that most of his dialogue is just a thesis statement in search of a play.

Ends takes place in an isolated cabin in 1963: here Kingsley, a 26-year-old black man, has lived alone for 14 years with only the books of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alexandre Dumas, and other great black writers to keep him company. Waiting in vain for his father to come home, he acts out Shakespeare's Othello and listens to Paul Robeson records. A knock on the door during a torrential rainstorm does not introduce his father, however, but a wanderer named Glober, a white Vietnam veteran seeking shelter from the storm.

In the classical tradition of buddy movies, the pair fight at first but soon realize that they have more in common than they thought. In the short time they spend together, Kingsley teaches Glober about the merits of black literature, and Glober convinces Kingsley that the civil rights movement has changed the American landscape, which Kingsley and his parents escaped back in 1949. Fellow outcasts, the two decide to live together, apart from the society that looks down on minorities and returning Army veterans.

Unfortunately Alex's writing is inconsistent and his premise implausible. The dialogue isn't natural sounding--it lurches from topic sentence to topic sentence until Alex has finally tackled all the subjects he deems worthy: the blacklisting of Robeson, the death of Du Bois, the triumphs of Joe Louis. Once these subjects have been covered, the play just sort of stops, leaving a number of questions unanswered. Will Glober really turn his back on society and live the life of a castaway with Kingsley? Will the politically astute Kingsley choose to remain in the wilderness even after learning of the exploits of Martin Luther King?

If one can accept the idea that a guy who just happens to be wandering around in a rainstorm stumbles into a cabin and decides to stay, even after its owner threatens him with a hatchet, there are a few pleasures to be had in this Victory Gardens Studio Theater production. Patrick Walker as the gruff, world-weary Glober manages, despite his clumsy lines about Vietnam and the Big Lie, to make his character sympathetic and complex. And although Jaye Stewart apparently directed William Carroll to overact wildly in some instances, Carroll is quite moving in some of Kingsley's quieter, more contemplative moments. Douglas Bryan Bean's clever set, which resembles a lean-to, matches the desolate atmosphere of the play perfectly.

It seems Alex has spent much time rewriting and reworking his play, but one more rewrite might be a good idea. If he'd let his characters instead of his ideas influence the course the play takes, Ends could be an auspicious beginning for him.

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