Beale Street Blues

By OyamO
St. Louis Black Repertory Company

For his play I Am a Man, OyamO picks the 1968 strike of the black sanitation workers in Memphis as a vessel to hold the seismic eruptions that were making America a different society after the '60s than it was before. Through that strike, the playwright brings into the drama many of the voices that rang out then, and he gives an amazingly full and fair hearing to each of those voices. But in this drama of clashing wills and ideas, what those voices say is more important than the individuals who say them.

OyamO does give us a central figure we can sympathize with. He's T.O. Jones, one of the sanitation workers, finally driven by injustice piled on injustice to try to organize a union. He's an ordinary man doing something extraordinary, stumbling but persevering, and A.C. Smith endows him with a large helping of humanity. But the human gets lost in the whirlwind of events. Jones' troubled marriage, with Cintia Sutton giving a finely balanced portrait as his wife, gets only a few brief glances, because marital problems are not what this play is about. When Jones loses control of the union that has been his life, his potentially tragic suffering is swallowed up in the assassination of Martin Luther King and in the union's victory.

Like the play, the production, directed by Ron Himes, works in broad strokes. Sometimes this can verge on caricature, especially in those characters the playwright doesn't much like. Christopher Hickey manages to give Memphis' mayor some touches of fear that keep him from being entirely and only a pompous ass. At the other end of the spectrum, Kelly Henton and Guanin Jones forcefully present the Black Power movement's dignity and self-respect. But when they turn the cry of "Power to the people" -- a time-honored American sentiment -- into a mechanically repeated refrain, they arouse the time-honored American inclination to ridicule group-think. And T.O. Jones loses some esteem in our eyes when he takes up with them.

But the strong contrasts can create crackling theater. The mayor may be a shallow figure, but the power he represents guarantees fireworks when he faces off against the representative of the national union, winningly played by John Pierson. (Pierson unfortunately is also cast as the one sympathetic figure in the mayor's entourage; Pierson's acting is fine, but at one point I was briefly confused about which character he was playing.) A confrontation between Henton's Black Power leader and Kenn E. Head, playing the other national union rep, generates a gut-level intensity. (Henton also sounds amazingly like Dr. King in the brief quotations he delivers from King's speeches.) Robert Mitchell brings a warmly human touch to the leader of the coalition of local clergymen as he tries to keep these conflicts from blowing the movement to smithereens.

Jan Hartley's projections of photos of the actual events in Memphis, thrown on Mark Putman's efficiently spare set, remind us of the documentary nature of I Am a Man. The play's epic quality is anchored, appropriately for a play set in Memphis, by a bluesman, a rock-solid performance by Gregg Haynes. His singing frames the events, and his spoken words turn into the words spoken by the actors of the drama.

In its focus on ideas and events more than on character, and in its scale -- which the Black Rep production doesn't always get quite right -- I Am a Man won't appeal to everyone. But I like it a lot.

-- Bob Wilcox

By Anton Chekhov
Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University

If a perfect modern play exists, it is Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The action, which begins, climaxes and ends faultlessly, is contained in a natural time frame. Each character is interesting, worthy of attention and essential. Despite the humor of word and deed that informs every fiber of the drama, the emotions the play generates are pity, often rather contemptuous, and fear, not only for the characters but for the society in which they cannot function. If you want to know exactly why the Russian Revolution had to happen, in The Cherry Orchard Chekhov lays pre-1917 Russia open and, like a skillful anatomist, dissects and explicates at the same time.

That Chekhov observed social pathology so well might be a result of his medical training. In his day, however, a physician, no matter how skilled, could actually do very little but diagnose. He had morphine to ease pain, a few drugs for certain diseases -- quinine for malaria, for instance. If he was up on the journals, he might have some knowledge of antisepsis, but no antibiotics, no antidepressants -- nothing to cure, nothing to cause remission. The Cherry Orchard is a presentation of a case, interesting but hopeless, at grand rounds, where the best doctors can do nothing more than talk intelligently about it.

The difficulty in producing The Cherry Orchard is finding actors who are capable of making even an apparently small role seem the most important part in the play. Tim Ocel, however, who has directed this production with the most delicate sensibility coupled with absolutely breathtaking dramatic acuity, fields a cast of young actors so good that I kept saying to myself that this character or that, in small role or large, was the key to understanding the play. Mr. Ocel's triumph, ensemble performance as well-fitted as a high performance racing engine, simply doesn't allow you to notice that a tall, fit young man is acting the part of a 90-year-old servant because you're so interested in what he's doing that what he is has become merely accidental.

Next Page »