Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Patience of Nantucket"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi


by Robert Johnson, Jr.
directed by Akiba Abaka

Patience Cooper … Marie Guinier
Rev. James Crawford … Rev. Joe Lee Baker Bay
Trilona Pompey … Dosha Ellis Beard
Attorney Marston … Mark Bourbeau
Nathaniel Fitzgerald … Bern Budd
Mark Salom … Jeff Gill
Uriah Gardner … Ed Peed
Alfred Macy … Brian Quint
Judge Brigham … Robert Runck
Attorney Gardner … Paul Shafer
Mary Gardner … Mary Elizabeth Rutkowski
Dr. Sherman … Jesse Strachman

The City of Boston has been blessed with a playwright with whom she can truly be proud: Robert Johnson, Jr., Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Johnson’s new play PATIENCE OF NANTUCKET, based on a true story about a 19th century black woman falsely accused of murder in her native Nantucket, is a tragedy written more in sorrow than in rage, gathering its force from well-researched facts that climaxes in Patience Cooper putting her “X” to a bogus confession, even though she is innocent, in exchange for a freedom that is slow in coming. There are a few nitpicks: a brief, unnecessary prologue of the victim’s murder since the details are later recited in court; a vagueness as to why Patience, already in prison, was singled out as scapegoat (I will assume Ms. Cooper was an upstanding member of her island community and had unintentionally transcended her boundaries); the final minute where Patience looks into the audience (i.e. the future) and asks if she will be remembered --- a shift in tone all the more startling since the preceding two hours have been firmly grounded in the 1860s. But these grumbles are swept aside by Dr. Johnson’s solid, honest dialogue written by the emotion, not by the yard; each utterance, be it sentence or speech, is tailored to the length of its passion, no more, no less --- and by his gallery of ever-changing portraits; even the lengthy courtroom scene, instead of being cut-and-dried, becomes a marvelous display of character turns. On the night I attended, the Boston Center’s Black Box Theatre was packed with a racially mixed audience who sat in rapt enchantment --- the same Black Box Theatre where the Zeitgeist production of BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE died a slow, lonely death, four seasons ago: I can only hope that the cultural times are a-changing in this still-segregated town.

Happy the playwright whose play is born in loving hands and Dr. Johnson must be a happy parent, indeed, with the Up You Mighty Race production: Akiba Abaka has blended together an ensemble of seasoned performers and others, not so, with the latter’s stage-stiffness still suggesting the frankness of nineteenth-century folk, and they all look so RIGHT: for instance, Mary Elizabeth Rutkowski’s Mary has a washerwoman’s sad, worn mask and stance and Mark Bourbeau’s Attorney Marston has stepped from a Brady tintype. Robert Runck is properly dour as the Judge and Paul Shafer’s bass declamation issues from the slenderest of lawyers; Brian Quint and Jesse Strachman represent the snippity side of Nantucket life (Mr. Quint is a fine “accent” actor; may he continue to add his dabs of color in future productions). Ed Peed’s quivering mannerisms are put to good use as the jailer Uriah Gardner --- the other victim of the piece --- and Bern Budd, a newcomer to me but not to those who know his Mark Twain one-man show, personifies the most formidable strain of racial prejudice: his Nathaniel Fitzgerald is calcified hatred; the eyes, cold slits of granite. Three members of Ms. Abaka’s JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE ensemble have returned: in lesser hands, the role of Trilona Pompey, Patience’s friend on the witness stand, could have dissolved into multiple personalities as she vacillates between speaking her mind and knowing her place but Dosha Ellis Beard, in her one scene, fascinates in all her subtleties, and she is convincingly “colored”; as long as the Rev. Joe Lee Baker Bay, playing Patience’s father confessor, is cast in roles where spiritual ecstasy can release his gospel tones, all will be well; Jeff Gill continues to evolve as the White Man that black audiences love to hate: his strangulation in last year’s ASCENSION was cheered; “Cut him!” murmured a woman when Jacqui Parker held a samurai sword to his throat in her recent DARK AS A THOUSAND MIDNIGHTS; when Mr. Gill’s smiling Mark Salom held out Patience’s confession to her (i.e. Snake, Apple and Eve), another woman uttered, “Don’t do it!” If you ever wish to see an actor put an audience in his pocket, then anything performed by Mr. Gill will do.

Two centuries ago, a playgoer having witnessed Edmund Kean’s Othello remarked, “I saw those eyes all night” --- the same compliment can be paid to Marie Guinier’s heartbreaking Patience (so appropriately named!) who begins her sentence as a woman of dignity and is reduced to two haunted eyes staring up from bottomless despair. Though Ms. Guinier weeps onstage, paradoxically, my evening’s audience was dried-eyed in its sadness --- there are times when sorrow can ring so true that tears are checked rather than released and this was one of those rare, rare moments where you hang your head over the timeless cruelty that human beings, regardless of color, can inflict upon each other.

Peter Colao has contributed a simple, wooden setting that evokes its time and place and, for once, the scene changes executed by the ensemble in half light are aesthetically right with its sense of community and in keeping with 19th century aesthetics --- a streamlined, machine-run production would be as out of place as Patience’s final minute in this brave, brave play that turns back a page of American history as deep and profound as the ocean that surrounds and lashes Nantucket, itself.

"Patience of Nantucket" (7 - 23 September)
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 983-8600

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