note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Beverly Creasey
At first THE TRIAL OF ONE SHORT SIGHTED BLACK WOMAN vs. MAMMY LOUISE AND SAFREETA MAE (At the BCA through June 9) seems to be a comic send-up of racial stereotypes in the style of George Wolfe’s THE COLORED MUSEUM or Ed Bullins’ DR.GEECHEE AND THE BLOOD JUNKIES. Then you realize that Karani M. Leslie’s mock trial is much more than a quirky romp.
Leslie goes for the jugular, weighing in on the origins and legacy of the images of slavery, destructive images which have persisted in American culture for well over two hundred years. If you don’t think that Black women, in particular, still are getting a bad rap, just recall Don Imus’ recent on air defamatory remarks.
For the purpose of her legal argument, the playwright indicts the media, especially television, and films like PINKY and GONE WITH THE WIND. Hattie McDaniel made dozens and dozens of films (and won an Oscar for her “mammy” role in WIND) but she almost always was cast as a benevolent, deferential maid. Leslie takes these images to task, making them into “real life” characters who can take the witness stand and state their case.
Director Jacqui Parker has a stellar cast to inhabit these stories: Talaya Freeman makes a formidable judge, as do Valerie Lee and Marvelyn McFarlane as opposing attorneys. Kortney Adams finds the heart in her character as the modern, high-powered career woman. It’s she who is suing the detrimental images of Mammy (played with quiet power by Valencia Hughes-Imani) and the sexy spitfire, Safreeta (touchingly portrayed by Anich D’Jae). The supporting cast, too, is exemplary. Cristian De Jesus lights up the stage in two roles and Jeff Gill gets to smartly portray all the wicked slave owner parts. The children in the cast have powerful roles in the slavery scenes and Peter Calao’s multi-purpose, bare bones set easily shifts between the courtroom and the stifling hold of a ship, where the only light (brilliantly designed by Emily Teague) is filtered in tiny patches from above.
Frank Shefton’s sound design, as well, becomes a character in the play, foreshadowing the slave ship, for example, with strains of Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny Song.” Lauren Sison’s period costumes evoke just the right flavor for the characters, from Mammy’s turban to the plantation owner’s top hat and tails. The material is often funny and although Act I runs a wee bit long, Act II packs a punch that will make you think quite differently about those celebrated “Tall Ships.”