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Tatum Family Blues 

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TATUM FAMILY BLUES

ETA Creative Arts Foundation

On June 10, 1940, Chordam Tatum had a vision in which an apparition prophesied the coming of a "Lord of the Circle" who would lead his black brethren home to the motherland--and who would be the product of Chordam's impending marriage with his sweetheart Varianne. Thirty years later Chordam and Varianne have three children, none of whom seems to be leadership material. The youngest, Tony, is sweet tempered but slow-witted, and at 24 has yet to hold down a job for more than an hour. Florene is a workaholic who knows everything there is to know and doesn't mind telling it to everyone. Melody, the oldest, fled home after a hysterical pregnancy at the age of 16--a phenomenon her pious mother attributes to an obsession with the "blasphemous vision." But after an absence of nearly nine years Melody returns to her squabbling, unhappy family accompanied by her husband, Ramsey, whom she thinks just might be the Lord of the Circle.

Charles Michael Moore claims to have structured Tatum Family Blues along the lines of a jazz piece. The theme--"put your own house in order"--seems clear enough. But though the playwright's attempts at variations on that theme can be detected, the narrative's allegorical content is coupled with an earthbound TV-comedy execution that makes for some irritating dissonances. Topics are also introduced and then left dangling; for example, a brief conversation about light-skinned children being valued over darker ones could have posed some questions worthy of discussion, but it's cut short and never resumed. The various two- and three-character scenes are bridged with family quarrels that seem to arise from nothing more than childish petulance. There's also a subplot involving Ramsey, some stolen money, and a lot of bad press. After we're thoroughly confused, Moore gives his hopelessly tangled yarn a swift and incomprehensible resolution that has something to do with Chordam's apparition being the ghost of Marcus Garvey, who died on--whattaya know--June 10, 1940. Then Moore ends the Tatum family feud with a big, warm group hug so phony and facile that one wonders why he didn't just bail out by saying it was all a dream.

Tatum Family Blues bears all the signs of a script that has been through too many workshops and too few revisions, but as its director Moore has assembled a fine cast of performers who somehow manage to develop plausible characters out of this mess. Particularly adroit are Daryl Charisse as the resolute Mrs. Tatum and Askia Bantu as her mild-mannered spouse. Karl Gibson makes an engaging Tony without overdoing the cutesiness, while Dushon Brown gives Florene a feistiness that's softened by an infectious laugh. Darryl Reed, last seen playing Dr. Martin Luther King in the Black Ensemble's Perfect Duet, delivers an ironic and understated performance as Ramsey. Melody Tatum, the alleged catalyst for all the action, is given little to do besides plead with everyone to stop fighting, but Renee Lockett-Lawson carries the role off with sincerity and humor. Dorian Sylvain has designed a country kitchen so cozy and familiar that one can almost smell bacon frying and pies baking, and Darius Woolfolk's lights keep the multiple playing areas distinct and clearly defined. ETA has long had a reputation for well-crafted productions. Too bad this one didn't have a better script to work with.

IMAGINING BRAD

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

Imagining Brad is also about houses in disorder, but playwright Peter Hedges has made no attempt to ground his thesis in any sort of realistic presentation. That allows him to cut through much of the emotional froth surrounding the issues of domestic violence and male-female relationships to propose arguments of shocking clarity and personal truth.

Dana Sue Kaye boasts so incessantly of her wonderful marriage and faultless husband that no one in her circle ever wonders if she's protesting a bit much--until she meets the enigmatic newlywed known only as Brad's Wife. This woman seems almost inhumanly serene and cheerful, but no one--including us--ever sees her husband. ("He's not even in your wedding picture!" Dana Sue shouts, aghast. "What is he? Some kind of vampire?") As she learns more, however, her horror changes to envy, and to disgust at the hypocrisy of her own marital contract.

Imagining Brad is a grotesque little fable that raises harsh questions about our culture's misguided notions about the "perfect" marriage. Director Patrick Kerwin has thrown its eeriness into even sharper focus by playing what could easily have become mawkish melodrama with an almost terrifying exaggeration. Nora Herold's Dana Sue and Heather Graff's Brad's Wife are done up to look like puppets designed by Edward Gorey; Brad's Wife is decked out in a Mary Pickford outfit and a Minnie Mouse falsetto that ought to be irritating but somehow emerges as soothing. Far from being distracting, this cartoonishness only heightens the emotional vulnerability of the characters--after all, why should a cartoon character try to hide anything?

Hedges's solution may be as simplistic as his arguments--a choice between an abusive whole man and a benevolent half-man is draconian, to say the least. But his willingness to explore topics that make the politically correct squeamish is admirable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.

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