note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark
Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland
Costume Design by Molly Trainer
Lighting design by Joseph C. Fox
Production Stage Manager Greg Nash
Matoka Cheeks.........Natanjah Driscoll
Aunt Cora............Celli LaShell Pitt
Mattie Cheeks..........Jacqueline Gregg
Rawl Cheeks.................Baron Kelly
Yaveni Aaronsohn...........Ted Kazanoff
Joyce Cheeks..............Gizelle Jones
This is turning into a great year for tough, hard-hitting theater, and leading a pack of candidates for next year's IRNE for best production or best ensemble is The New Rep's production of "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs". The play is about the effects on one Black family of endemic inter-racial rape in a small Alabama town back in 1949. All through the play tiny details evoke whole paragraphs and chapters in Black history --- i.e. Daddy goes to Ohio for months to make more money, as many did. But the text also bristles with carefully planted hints of surprises to unfold later. Everything about this play, from John Henry Redwood's script through Adam Zahler's relentless direction to the honest power of the cast's playing deserves attention, and praise.
Start with the look of the show.
Janie E. Howland's set is the raw-dirt yard and front porch of a proud Black family. On one side the porch roof is held up not by a two-by-four but a crooked, bark-less treetrunk that's good enough and cheap enough to do the job. The colors here, and in most of Molly Trainer's costumes are muted browns that mirror the packed earth this family walks about barefoot. ("Carry your socks and shoes till you get to the black-top; don't you go to church with dirty shoes.") Even Joseph C. Fox' lighting is muted -- as full of brooding shadows as this family's history.
Then there's the acting talent.
Baron Kelly's laugh, playing Daddy, is a kind-hearted detonation of obvious love for his two growing girls and adored wife. And in act two when he returns faced with apparent infidelity she will not explain, his bewildered anger is volcanic. Kelly's bio is a portrait of an actor of international stature, and here on stage he IS this honest, powerful man who would kill (and clearly would be killed) if he knew the real truth.
Jacqueline Gregg is a New York actress, who has the great problem as Momma of explaining, to her girls and to the audience, why her conspiracy of silence is the only way to handle the matter. Through act one her assured, affectionate attitude is one of instructing her children how to keep their pride while taking rightful places in society. ("Don't you get between me and my family.") Most of her moments are small, quiet, with all the electric tensions of the situation held vibrantly in check --- terrible yet unstated.
Gisella Jones came from Canada to tour and work regionally, and she has a bright, pretty face some may recognize from "All My Children". She plays the older child, fighting adolescent impulses of defiance and independence, and unwillingly aware of becoming a woman. ("I don't like him talking inside my clothes like that.")
Celli LaShelle Pitt, already an Equity actress with lengthy regional credits, came to Brandeis for an M.F.A. in theatre. Hers is the eerily black-clad, Faulknerian figure of Momma's silent, reclusive sister, whose lone act-two monologue brings all the play's hints shockingly together.
But both ends of the age spectrum here are Bostonians.
Natanjah Driscoll learned to be a child on stage mostly at Wheelock Family Theatre. She has learned uppity teasing of her older sister, and a quietly terrified trembling as she learns what she does not want to hear about the family's misfortunes --- her emotions as quicksilver as they are intense.
And Ted Kazanoff, teacher and director and actor with every important company in Boston, plays the only non-Black in this story ("I'm not White. I'm a Jew.") --- a professor of anthropology affectionately investigating the effect of words, in particular the words in the play's title and their obvious intention, on people's emotions. He too reveals himself only in act two as trying to expiate two guilts: he survived The Holocaust and once, trying "to pass for White" his companions did light-hearted and despicable violence to a "Nigger" and he said nothing about it.
But a good script and a fine cast is not all. Director Adam Zahler is at pains here not simply to make certain that each carefully wrought human character remains clear and individual, but also to make their meshings and their confrontations strike sparks and rebound everywhere --- in people silent onstage as well as those speaking. This ensemble experience gives the impression that Anything might happen. Like life, it is inevitable yet surprising every step of the way.
At this point, may I digress for some personal comments on this particular script.
Three years ago John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler" --- which may have been the first play done by The Lyric Stage of Boston Inc. with an all-Black cast and theme --- was awarded first the IRNE and then the Norton prize for best play of the year.
But I hated it.
I found the basic story a sacharine bathetic melodrama that turned on a most unbelievable assumption: that a woman as gorgeous as Jacqui Parker, no matter how hard she tried to act it, could possibly be an unmarried spinster years past her prime! I thought it odd that in 1942 all anyone had on their minds, even in Harlem, would be love and not World War II. I couldn't believe that any lady could spend hours in a brightly-lit room brooding at an open window; at the very same time, an hour on the train inland in New Brunswick, New Jersey, my family used blackout-curtains, yet in this play the port of New York had no air-raid wardens? Hah!
I found the blocking primative, and the acting external and insincere. Yes, there were Black voices in the audience hooting and signifying at what I had been taught to call "indicating" but some actors came perilously close to the star-turn flamboyance of "The Jeffersons".
I think I wrote no review, though in all the universal critical accolades, my silence went unnoticed.
That next March I was astonished when I heard that "The Old Settler" was runaway favorite for Best Play, and I said so. The response was: Okay, at one vote per each fifty shows seen, you can put all three of your votes on (I forget the runner-up) and keep "Settler" from winning.
I couldn't do that.
I don't approve of critical egotism. If I'm capable of believing other critics wrong, I ought to be able to think, when everyone disagrees with me, that I might be as well. Besides, had I upset that applecart I would have walked into the IRNE Party that year with all my former friends treating me like Julius Caesar on the Ides of March.
"The Old Settler" by John Henry Redwood was given its IRNE.
In the three years since then interesting things have happened in theater here in Boston.
For one thing, The Our Place Theatre Project has done three festivals of African American Theatre, and the work has been better and better every year.
Also, essentially that same young Black company mounted a performance of "Blues for An Alabama Sky" that reunited some of the actors from "Settler" (casting Jacqui in a much more believable role!), and The Lyric gave Ricardo Engermann a role in "Lobby Hero" that proved the acting talent I never saw in "Settler". Again, Our Place had Lois Roach ("Settler's" director) direct "The Wiz"; I saw that show open and then close, and was amazed at how wonderful it had become.
And at the BCA, David Miller's Zeitgeist Stage Company did three uncompromising, serious plays with Black actors and Black themes, including "Bee-Luther-Hatchie" and "Chain" that in effect made Naeemah A, White Peppers into a star.
And those are just a few things my limited awareness has noticed.
Perhaps more importantly than all that, Kay Bourne the Arts Editor of THE BOSTON (nee BAY STATE) BANNER joined the IRNE crew and, for two years, has cited one or two local companies "for casting a minority actor in a significant role in an interesting play."
So, in the three years intervening, I think theater here in Boston has been evolving. And I think a symbol of that change lies in the fact that, in my own myopic opinion, "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" is, in every way, everything I missed in the same playwright's "The Old Settler".
Of course, the big truth about theater is that it is made out of People.
So I was encouraged by some things Dorian Christian-Baucom said at this year's IRNE Party in accepting a Best Support award for his excellent work in "Blues for An Alabama Sky". He said, and I hope I'm quoting and not paraphrasing here:
"At my first class in acting, I was told 'You are welcome here.' And what that meant to me was that not only I but people who were like me, belonged there. And so I thank you for this award, because it means the same thing."