A Tale of Two Reps

Two plays at two Reps expose the cultural apartheid of St. Louis

The racial divisions within this city are so painfully obvious that we hardly even see them.

At the finale of the opening-night production of Avenue X, as the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis audience rose for the obligatory standing O, instead of applauding, everyone should have slapped themselves on the backs in unison -- "Bravo! We have confronted serious and complex issues about race in America. Bravo! All our assumptions have been confirmed! Bravo! We're not like those people we just saw onstage!" Then, the drive home to the quiet woodlands of West County and a comfortable night's sleep. No fear of the bogeyman at the door.

The "X" is for execrable.

It would be easy to dismiss this piece of musical fluff as just that. The Rep presents consistently more challenging work than Avenue X, be it on the Mainstage or in the edgier Studio Theatre downstairs; Jay Russell's one-man extravaganza in the Rep's smaller venue, Fully Committed, is the best ticket in town right now. But Avenue Xcomes wrapped with earnest intentions and do-gooder hype. Avenue Xconfronts important issues of relevance to our community, or so the show's director, John Ruocco, and Rep artistic director Steve Woolf would have us believe. But instead of confronting important issues, the predominantly white, predominantly upper-middle-class audience that is the Rep's bread and butter is allowed to wallow in its own self-satisfied moral lethargy.

Racism remains a paralyzing force on St. Louis. The best we do is acknowledge it. The worst we do is sugarcoat it with moral platitudes that displease only the renegade Klansman. Avenue X fits into that category.

The plot of the play can be summed up as "When Pasquale Met Milton." Pasquale (Jon Stewart) is an Italian Catholic living in Brooklyn. He gets together with his fellow rigazzi to sing doo-wop on the street corner. His grandest dream involves a spot in a talent show downtown.

Pasquale ventures into the sewers to sing because of the quality of the sound. He meets a fellow sewer vocalist, Milton (J. Cameron Barnett), an African-American who's moved into the new projects on the other side of the street. We've already heard Pasquale nonchalantly utter the N-word, so it's obvious that the meeting of these two is cause for mutual alarm, but then they begin to sing, at first challenging each other vocally but eventually coming into harmony.

But can the harmony they find in their voices be transferred into a similar harmony between their black and white lives? If you already sense the West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet theme, you've got this one down. Friends and family keep the two songbirds apart, although there are moments when Pasquale's doo-woppers and Milton's R&B brethren find themselves making music together over the color line.

Can't we all just get along?

Avenue X has nothing more to say than that. One woman exiting the theater said to her companion, "They got along when they sang together. Music was the universal language." Woolf's program notes concur: "The collision of two ethnic neighborhoods in 1963 Brooklyn proves that music can both divide and unite people. What power the artistic impulse has!"

That power is not present at the Rep, where there's not an audience to divide or unite. The play poses no argument because we're all in agreement here: We all should just get along. We should embrace our commonality and respect our differences. We learned that from Sidney Poitier movies.

Avenue X, then, despite the talk of its social relevance, or its "grit" and "depth" -- words Ruocco spouted on Joe Pollack's KWMU-FM radio show, Cityscape -- is little more than an entertainment. The reviews, in both the Riverfront Times and the Post-Dispatch, didn't even bother with the "message" of the show, and the audience, for the most part, went out talking about those wonderful voices.

The play ends in tragedy. Milton scuffles with Pasquale's more overtly racist friends and ends up falling in front of a subway train. Pasquale doesn't squeal on his friends, and the full ensemble returns to the stage singing, "Where is love?"

The real question is "Where is justice?" But that's a much tougher one to pose, and one that demands more discordant harmonies and calls to witness an audience more ready for self-examination than self-congratulation.

Meanwhile, the other Rep, the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, located in the urban mix of vacant lots, abandoned buildings and beautiful art palaces that is Grand Center, celebrates its 25th-anniversary season with Seven Guitars, created by one of America's greatest playwrights, August Wilson. But the weekend after Mayor Francis Slay was on hand for an opening-night dedication ceremony, the audience for Seven Guitars is as black as the audience for Avenue Xis white.

The cultural apartheid of St. Louis, then, has nothing to do with the work itself. Wilson, with Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony to his credit, is a mainstream artist. He writes major plays for major audiences, and those plays focus on the African-American experience, which, arguably, is the central American experience -- the relationship between black and white in America is the ongoing narrative of America. Wilson serves up stories from that experience with all the complexity they deserve. You can be sure he will not conclude the final act with the plaintive cry "Where is love?"

Rather, as in Seven Guitars, Wilson's stage erupts with joy, sorrow, anguish, pain and anger. Wilson does not soothe. He presents hauntingly beautiful moments, such as when the central protagonist, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (J. Samuel Davis) remembers how his mother used to sing the Lord's Prayer, then sings it, with all the emotional loss the memory engenders. Compare this with the musical interludes of Avenue X, and you find the difference between entertainment and art. Avenue X pleases with pretty sounds; Seven Guitars uses music to deepen the story, to provide shadings and color and open more penetrating visions of the heart.

A few nights later, in the Grandel Theatre, among a mostly African-American audience, the difference between the real deal -- in terms of "relevance" to the community -- and the pap is obvious. In Seven Guitars, for example, three African-American men -- Floyd, Red (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and Canewell (Kim Sullivan) -- spend some time good-naturedly comparing and contrasting the virtues of their weapons of choice -- a .38, a .32 and a knife, respectively. There's great humor in this, as there is the chill of reality -- these men who have gained our sympathies are also violent, even dangerous men. Three black men with weapons in their hands means one thing to an African-American audience. We're left to imagine what it would mean in Webster Groves, where issues of race are served with the easy-to-swallow plea for peace, love and understanding.

The cultural apartheid of St. Louis is not institutional. It's not that blacks aren't welcome at the Rep or that whites aren't welcome at the Black Rep. It's about where blacks and whites choose to go; it's about where they feel more comfortable. And so the two institutions serve their audiences.

Avenue X means well, but it doesn't demand that the audience look in on itself or look -- with a harsh light -- at the lives the Rep patrons choose to accept. The view outside the windows of the SUV doesn't change.

Leaving Seven Guitars, you walk down broken sidewalks, notice deteriorating buildings and vacant lots, see the Sun sign glowing like a tutu on an arthritic. The play doesn't take you out of this landscape but makes you see it more vividly, makes you think there is a cause for the squalor. Seven Guitars confronts important issues of relevance to our community.

And it won't resolve them for you, whatever community you may be from.

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