Beale Street Blues

I AM A MAN
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

THE CHERRY ORCHARD
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.

One cannot but be ravished by Susan Dietz's person and persona in the role of Lyubov Andreyevna, an estate owner who cannot be bothered to do anything to hold onto it, even though losing it will mean poverty for her and her family. Both in exhalation and dejection, Dietz's body language and tuneful voice are the physical metronome to which all the others move. I was also struck by the compelling performances of Matt Huffman as Lopakhin, who rises from peasant's son to owner of the estate, and of James Andrew Butz as Trofimov, a no-longer-a-kid perpetual student who may be the only one who sees further than a few months into the future.

Geno A. Franco's set is consistently as practical as it is interesting; Frank McCullough's costumes are effective, especially for Ms. Dietz; Keith Evans' lighting and Marc Moore's sound are never intrusive and always helpful.

The Cherry Orchard continues through Feb. 28, in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center, and those who like their theater to have some substance as well as theatrical competence really should not miss this uniformly first-class production. It's the best Cherry Orchard I've ever seen and, in its way, the best production of any play I've seen in St. Louis for a couple of years. Its director and young actors have my admiration and my gratitude.

-- Harry Weber

GLORY SOUNDS THROUGH ME: THE WOMEN OF GOSPEL
By Lori Reed
Historyonics Theatre Company

Glory Sounds Through Me is about music, the gospel music of the African-American church. The subject fits perfectly the way Historyonics treats material, combining spoken words drawn from the historical record with relevant period music. These words are all about the music and its makers; music and words mate seamlessly. Lori Reed's script places the music's development in the context of the great migration of blacks from Southern farms to Northern cities in the teens and '20s and of the Depression of the '30s. The piece reaches its emotional climax with Thomas Dorsey's singing of "Precious Lord," the piece he composed out of his agony when he lost both his wife, in childbirth, and the infant son she'd borne.

Alerica L. Anderson plays Dorsey, the father of gospel music, with wit and power. But Glory Sounds Through Me focuses especially on the mothers of gospel, the women whose powerful voices and skill at musical embellishment gave gospel singing the daredevil vocal thrills of baroque opera. Monica Parks plays Sallie Martin, one of Dorsey's earliest and most enthusiastic followers, a woman more noted for her ability to perform a song than sing it -- a difficult feat Parks pulls off delightfully. Hassie Davis smoothly narrates the evening and has fun playing some hidebound church singers. Jeane Mitchell-Carr brings a warm sense of humor and an incredible voice to her portrait of Mahalia Jackson. At the center of Glory Sounds Through Me stands St. Louis' own Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, in the person of Denise Thimes. As a friend said, "Well. Denise Thimes. She can sing and she can act. What more do you want?" Say amen, somebody.

-- Bob Wilcox

DO US PART
By Christopher Jackson
CJ Productions

Do Us Part is a terminally silly way to spend a little over an hour, and that's just the way its playwright, director and producer -- who all happen to be Christopher Jackson -- want it.

This thriller-comedy, Chris Jackson's newest theater piece, concerns the efforts of devoutly gay Jack (Justin Heinrich), with the aid of his unacknowledged best friend, Barry (Jeffrey Scott Yapp), to stop the marriage of his twink-fantasy best friend, Trevor (Adam Lewis), to Suzanne (Christy Butero) and show him what true love (whatever) is.

As in most Chris Jackson scripts, the gags (some of which make you do so, they're so corny) come at a rate of about 10 per second. This time, however, Jackson also descends to some comedy props that are so ridiculous you won't believe it till you see them. Mr. Heinrich camps to beat the band, and if you like this sort of humor, this play lets it flow like the Great Brown God.

As it stands, Do Us Part is not terribly substantial (cotton candy comes to mind), and some additions to hint at character development and stuff like that would banish the faint whiff of sitcom that hangs about.

But the night I was there, a full house consistently laughed at Do Us Part, and so did I.

-- Harry Weber

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