note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey
Studs Terkel was a tough, uncompromising reporter his whole life. For one thing he was blacklisted after refusing to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities in the ‘50s but he tripped into pop culture fame with the dramatization of his short, pithy interviews from the “common man” in his book “Working.” What worked on stage, even though the piece lacked a traditional story line, were the small revelations and earnest personal reflections. With RACE, adapted by Jamie Pachino, Terkel treads the painfully familiar terrain of racism and discrimination, focusing on the way large events effect people in small ways. Theatre on Fire presents the downright uncomfortable play at the Charlestown Working Theater (thru Feb. 3), a fitting locale, given Charlestown’s turbulent history of race relations.
RACE covers the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) phenomenon in real estate, law enforcement, education and social relations, as well as touching briefly on Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. What it doesn’t touch on, strangely enough, is racism in the military, nor does it address the murder of Malcolm X or Medger Evers or the fate of Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. (But who am I to tell Studs Terkel what to cover---except that I came of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Malcolm X seemed mighty important to me.)
What director Darren Evans does do, which fills in some of the dramatic gaps, is to represent what is left out, with music---so we hear Billie Holiday and Jimi Hendrix as well as Public Enemy, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits (but not enough of the James Weldon Johnson Black National Anthem for my taste). Evans opens the show with Leonard Cohen’s searing “Everybody Knows [the fight is fixed etc]” and he hits the nail squarely on the head. Everybody knows, sadly, tragically, what we’re hearing in the horrific white testimonials. What works best theatrically is the stuff we don’t know, like Dee Crawford’s transcendent performance as Emmett Till’s mother, who doesn’t let hate for the white men who murdered and mutilated her son, consume her. She’s the only character who, happily, returns.
Crawford is one of the main reasons to see RACE. When she amuses us with the triumphant story of a snatched purse, the stage lights up like the Fourth of July. The other reasons are Claude Del’s exquisite speech about ill fitting shoes, Ron Jones’ sorrowfully reflective alcoholic and Robin JaVonne Smith’s righteous community activist. Alejandro Simoes shoulders all the Hispanic testimony with aplomb and Justin Dilley, Phil Thompson, Kate Donnelly and Ann Carpenter have the unenviable task of portraying the white racists (and a few good guys).
Here’s why we need to hear what Terkel (and Spike Lee in the brilliant DO THE RIGHT THING) have to say. One of the play’s points has been born out just this week. The murder of a white teenager from Lincoln-Sudbury H.S. has dominated the airwaves and newspaper headlines but did you know that three 12-14 year old (Hispanic and African-American) teens from Dorchester have been murdered in the past three weeks? That’s more murders (in that age group) than Washington, D.C. has had in the past five years, with only one 13 year old and one 14 year old victim since 2002 (according to the Jan. 18th Boston Phoenix). What is going on in Boston? And if you don’t know, take a hard look at Theater on Fire’s RACE.