Theatre Mirror Reviews - "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS, NO DOGS"

by John Henry Redwood

directed by Adam Zahler

Matoka Cheeks … Natanjah Driscoll
Aunt Cora … Celli LaShell Pitt
Mattie Cheeks … Jacqueline Gregg
Rawl Cheeks … Baron Kelly
Yaveni Aaronsohn … Ted Kazanoff
Joyce Cheeks … Giselle Jones

I sincerely hope John Henry Redwood considers his play NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS, NO DOGS to be a work-in-progress, for a searing, unforgettable tragedy lies just below its surface --- perhaps even an opera --- truly. At present, Mr. Redwood’s play, which is receiving its New England premiere at The New Repertory Theatre, is earnest, well-intentioned, moving but, in the end, disappointing.

Mr. Redwood drew his inspiration from a road sign he saw down South --- “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs” --- and has set his play in rural North Carolina, circa 1949 to show how racial prejudice and segregation affect one black family in particular: Rawl Cheeks, his wife Mattie and their daughters Joyce (age 17) and Matoka (age 11). Rawl is a good man, a hard worker, a devoted husband and father --- but not a churchgoer; as if to compensate, Mattie is a deeply religious woman and a strict mother to their daughters, who are frisky as colts. A white man, Yaveni Aaronsohn, has been visiting with the Cheeks family; Yaveni is a Jewish sociologist gathering material for a book about American injustice towards their race and his religion. Drifting through the play like a ghost is Mattie’s mysterious Aunt Cora, veiled and in widow’s weeds, who comes daily to the Cheeks’ shack to pick up charity baskets of food. When Rawl is out of state earning extra money, Mattie is raped in the woods by a white man and becomes pregnant; the remainder of the play revolves around Mattie’s dilemma --- what should she tell Rawl? If she says she was raped by a white man, Rawl will seek revenge and risk getting himself lynched. And so Mattie holds her tongue, even if Rawl now considers her to be an adulteress.

I will now repeat the above paragraph with two simple edits:

Mr. Redwood drew his inspiration from a road sign he saw down South --- “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs” --- and has set his play in rural North Carolina, circa 1949 to show how racial prejudice and segregation affect one black family in particular: Rawl Cheeks, his wife Mattie and their daughters Joyce (age 17) and Matoka (age 11). Rawl is a good man, a hard worker, a devoted husband and father --- but not a churchgoer; as if to compensate, Mattie is a deeply religious woman and a strict mother to their daughters, who are frisky as colts. When Rawl is out of state earning extra money, Mattie is raped in the woods by a white man and becomes pregnant; the remainder of the play revolves around Mattie’s dilemma --- what should she tell Rawl? If she says she was raped by a white man, Rawl will seek revenge and risk getting himself lynched. And so Mattie holds her tongue, even if Rawl now considers her to be an adulteress.

If this second synopsis seems tighter, it is because I have removed Yaveni and Aunt Cora who, in my opinion, handicap an otherwise gripping play. Yaveni is there not only for the obvious reason (Jews, though white, also suffer persecution) but to act as Mattie’s confidant --- he does little else; Aunt Cora, right out of THE WOMAN IN BLACK, is the symbol of past prejudice who conveniently becomes an angel of justice. Remove these two characters and an American tragedy springs up before us: in Mr. Redwood’s play, Rawl tells Mattie he will forgive her if she has an abortion. Mattie cannot; her religious beliefs forbid it (she sees her rape as God’s will). If I may depart from what follows in Mr. Redwood’s play, what would Mattie do to keep Rawl with her? (Rawl, her daughters and Aunt Cora are all she has in a white man’s world.) Would she turn away from her God and risk an abortion, or keep the baby and tell Rawl the real cause of her pregnancy? Either way, Rawl will leave her --- for Cleveland (where he longs to go) or from being lynched. And with Rawl gone, what would Mattie do if one or both of her daughters are raped in similar fashion? Would she then take matters into her own hands, even at the risk of losing her own life? Here is the stuff of Tragedy, and the play’s world (for better or worse) can only achieve balance again after each member of the Cheeks family has met his or her destiny. Perhaps Mr. Redwood sensed this and chose to steer Mattie towards a more positive ending, which unravels all that he has unblinkingly set down before us (this is the segregated South, remember). Mattie’s chance at happiness wouldn’t ring so false if all that went before it --- apart from Yaveni and Aunt Cora --- hasn’t rung so true. (Mr. Redwood’s beautiful THE OLD SETTLER does end unhappily --- you don’t want it to, but the ending comes as no surprise, either.)

I mentioned “opera”, earlier, for Mr. Redwood is halfway to writing one --- his monologues are full-throated arias; Mattie’s impassioned turn in Act Two, which could be entitled “Give Me Your Anger”, cries out to be musicalized. Mr. Redwood, however, needs to orchestrate for shape as well as for content; for his arias literally stop the show --- the singer takes the stage while the others obediently wait regardless of what they’re feeling; soon Reality sits down to listen, too.

As written, Yaveni is a one-note character --- Jewish --- and, again, has little bearing on the plot: one of the Cheeks daughters could run in to breathlessly declaim that an old Jew --- a WHITE man --- was beaten up in town if Mr. Redwood wants to make a racial point. Ted Kazanoff, to be frank, is dull in the role. Did he and director Adam Zahler shy away from sentimental mannerisms and find little else to work with, or is Mr. Kazanoff simply bored? Whatever the reason, Mattie was not the only one who soon grew irritated with him. As Rawl, Baron Kelly swings between Cosby-like sweetness and frightening rant --- two halves not blended but stitched together; and Natanjah Driscoll is self-consciously cute as Matoka --- she didn’t convince me she lives in that shack.

Jacqueline Gregg and Giselle Jones --- respectively, Mattie and older daughter Joyce, ever locked in battle --- are the beating heart of this production. I marvel at Ms. Gregg’s stamina; she is onstage most of the time, and Mattie is composed entirely of Big Moments, which Mr. Zahler has Ms. Gregg play to the rafters --- and she does so, gloriously. (If this were indeed an opera, Mattie would sing some gospel to proclaim her faith in her God --- both showstopper and character revelation.) Ms. Jones matches Ms. Gregg in intensity; her Joyce is the universal late-teen on the verge of womanhood, loving her mother but chafing under her benevolent dictatorship, and it is painful to watch her crack open when racial violence lands upon her own family. (The Mss. Gregg and Jones have a beautiful rite-of-passage moment: Mattie decides Joyce is old enough and solemnly places a Sunday hat on her head before the girl goes off to church.)

I’ll say one thing --- Mr. Redwood’s play certainly has a powerful title. In this day and age, it’s startling to see planted outside New Rep’s church a banner that proclaims, “NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS, NO DOGS”. Those six words generate enormous power; but, for now, Mr. Redwood has settled for a fairy tale. Melpomene is waiting.

"No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" (26 February-30 March)
NEW REPERTORY THEATRE
54 Lincoln Street, NEWTON HIGHLANDS, MA
1 (617) 332-1646

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