note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi
Montez Cardwell; Jackie Davis; Michelle Eunis; Talaya Freeman; Cheyenne Jones;
Shauday Johnson-Jones; Ireta Bethune Joseph; Lornece Jayner; Danny Matta;
Nicole Parker; Frank A. Shefton; Wesley Taylor; Atarah Williams; Darius Omar Williams;
Karimah Williams; Sandra Williams
Belle Mae Riley … Jacqui Parker
Jessie; Big Boy Riley … Keedar Whittle
Tweet Riley … Taylor Parker
Jess. Jr. Riley … Derek Jackson
Ella Jenkins … Valerie Lee
Cornelius Benjamin III … David Curtis; Ernst Berrouet
Sheriff Winslow; Johnny Milam … Jeff Gill
Last season a blizzard helped to keep audiences down to a minimum at Our Place’s 2005 African American Theatre Festival which was the public’s loss for Cynthia Robinson’s ASCENSION was a genuine American tragedy and George C. Wolfe and Zora Neale Hurston’s SPUNK, a rascally good time; now, in clearer weather, I am heartened by the increased attendance for this season’s Festival which is offering a reprise of the showcase RHYTHM OF THE PEOPLE and the world premiere of Jacqui Parker’s DARK AS A THOUSAND NIGHTS about the Emmett Till murder case.
RHYTHM OF THE PEOPLE, a collage of dance, poetry, anger and laughter --- “our stories, told our way” --- is a hearty sampling of what the Our Place company can currently do. Much of the evening is at the workshop level --- seeds rather than harvest --- and then suddenly, excitingly, an excerpt from Philip Hayes Dean’s “Sty of the Blind Pig” springs to life with finely-realized characterizations from Talaya Freeman, Jackie Davis, Wesley Taylor and Montez Cardwell that demand a full-scale production. The evening’s glory is Ms. Davis whose dancing is both knife and victim and whose mask switches from sassy farce to worried drama with ease, and there are memorable contributions from Frank A. Shefton and Darius Omar William with the former as relaxed and loveable as the latter is explosive and cleansing.
In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, unaware of the unwritten laws of the Jim Crow South; three days later, two white men dragged Till from his bed in the dead of night, beat him brutally and shot him in the head. (Till’s mother insisted on displaying her disfigured son in an open coffin, an image horrifying to this day.) Although the killers were arrested and charged with murder, they were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury and later sold their story, including a detailed account of how they murdered Till, to a journalist. Till’s murder and his killers’ acquittal horrified the nation and the world and helped mobilize the civil rights movement. Ms. Parker’s DARK AS A THOUSAND NIGHTS deals with a rural family living just outside of Money, their daily lives in the segregated South and their reactions and consequences to the Till murder.
The evening begins vividly with Ms. Parker entering as Belle Mae Riley, clutching an unsheathed samurai sword to confront a vision of an unknown boy in danger (the sword belongs to Belle Mae’s father, a WWII veteran, now an upstairs invalid); the family members include Jessie, Belle Mae’s hardworking husband; Jess. Jr. and Tweet, their precocious son and daughter; Ella, Belle Mae’s citified sister who has come home to have an abortion; and Big Boy, Jesse’s half-wit brother living out in the woods --- as long as Ms. Parker stays within the family circle, DARK AS A THOUSAND NIGHTS is entertaining Chekhovian fare; when the Till murder intrudes, Ms. Parker draws upon more visions to further the plot, Greek messenger-style reportage and documentary excerpts with all of her characters coming through, intact (double-entendre, intended). Just as Belle Mae boasts of being able to inflict a small cut with her sword that can cause a man to bleed to death so does Ms. Parker dilute her play’s tension with humor and sweetness and turns her tale from tragedy to bedtime melodrama --- to place DARK AS A THOUSAND NIGHTS alongside ASCENSION’s stark, simple love triangle is to see how cautiously Ms. Parker has peeped into segregated times.
Keedar Whittle convinces as both Jesse and Big Boy with only a change of overalls; David Curtis, who filled Up You Mighty Race’s JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE with Old Testament thunder, now gently rumbles as Ella’s Chicago lover and Jeff Gill is on hand once again to jump-start the roles of the vacillating sheriff and the meanest white trash, ever. “Cut him,” murmured a woman behind me as Belle Mae held her sword to the latter’s throat --- an odd compliment towards Mr. Gill’s achievement but a compliment, all the same.