Theatre Mirror Reviews - The Fifth African American Theatre Festival: "Ascension"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Cynthia Robinson
directed by Robbie McCauley

Ruth Ö Jacqui Parker
Jacob Ö David Curtis
James Carlisle Ö Jeff Gill
Matilda (Asimah) Ö Linda Starks

The world premiere of Cynthia Robinsonís ASCENSION could prove to be the highlight of the Fifth African American Theatre Festival and I salute Ms. Robinson for a love triangle as simple and heartbreaking as Edith Whartonís ETHAN FROME: two Southern plantation slaves, Ruth and Jacob, will traditionally hop over a broom with their masterís consent. Said master, James Carlisle, has bedded Ruth on a regular basis and does so one last time on the eve of the wedding but once Ruth and Jacob are happily married, Carlisle decides not to give Ruth up, after all --- if what follows is predictable, it is because it is also inevitable. Ms. Robinson keeps her emotions and dialogue close to the ground --- no modern-day psychology, here --- and she has created vivid portraits of Ruth who separates body from soul only to have the former betray her; Jacob, who has turned a blind eye in the past but now assumes his wife is faithful to him; and, especially, Carlisle who is not a monster but, rather, a widowed man who first turned to Ruth for animal comfort but is now obsessed with her; a man who plays the sultan yet believes himself to be a Good Christian. The justice that is doled out will pacify black audiences (there were a few cheers in the house) and is followed by the curtain shortly afterwards, thus avoiding any consequences --- still, I was moved by Ms. Robinsonís achievement. James P. Byrne has designed the spare, rustic setting, Jonathan Bonner stuns with some of his lighting designs, in particular the wordless prologue where Ruth undergoes an abortion and recovers in sepia tones, and Robbie McCauley has directed leisurely but firmly, allowing her actors to expand in their characterizations.

Jacqui Parker is Ruth. This award-winning actress has a cool, blue-flame dignity that can lead her perilously close to diva-dom but her sudden yelp of panic when rough hands were laid upon her in last seasonís HAYMARKET hinted at deeper waters. ASCENSION allows Ms. Parker to display many of her colors, some of which Iíve never seen in her, before: here, she is playful and sexy (no wonder both men want her) and, more impressively, she can suffer up close and personal, at first stoically and in her final wrenching scene, operatically, but her most indelible moment comes when her Ruth stands in silence, holding a basket of old potatoes, listening to what Fate has in store for her --- her shifting emotions shine a beacon on what slavery is all about: nothing changes.

David Curtis made a memorable Old Testament icon in Up You Mighty Raceís JOE TURNERíS COME AND GONE; now he lightens his palette to create an engaging, boyish Jacob though I must ask that if life with Ruth is this joyous and the balm to all his woes, who needs emancipation? Under another director, Jeff Gill's Carlisle could have been just another Simon Legree --- i.e., mean white trash --- instead, Ms. McCauley has drawn a near-tenderness from this live wire; black audiences may prefer a more hissable villain but Mss. Robinson and McCauley and Mr. Gill plead a fair case for the Enemy which makes for richer tragedy (the characterís left hand remains hidden in its sleeve --- a defect?). As Matilda, a fellow slave who practices magic, Linda Stark is timeless as a bone but tends to swallow her lines; she has a stunning Act Two moment that caused members of the audience to cry out in alarm.

A partially-filled house witnessed ASCENSIONís birth and I can only hope that snow and indifference will not keep other audiences away from its few remaining performances: this warm, compelling tragedy must not go the route of BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE, which Boston chose to ignore two seasons ago.

The Fifth African American Theatre Festival: "Ascension" (19-28 January)
Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA.
1 (617) 933-8600

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