An intense study of the mechanics of hate gets a staged reading by the New Jewish Theatre

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By the end of David Gow's 1998 play Cherry Docs, the characters and the audience are both transformed. The violence of the players reaches a plateau, and grace follows. Were it not for this catharsis of understanding, audience members might emerge from this evening of hot-button-issue drama ready for blood.

Cherry Docs concerns a skinhead neo-Nazi youth in jail for killing a young Southeast Asian Burger King employee who went out into an alley to take out the trash. In a fit of racial hatred catalyzed by booze, Mike, the murderer, uses his 18-hole cherry-colored, steel-toed Doc Marten boots to kick the young man's head in. Danny, a Jewish lawyer, is assigned to defend Mike in a Canadian court.

The mood of this play is not for the faint. There are plenty of four-letter words, and the threat of violence about to erupt between the characters or in reminiscences by monologue is around every corner. "There's a lot of screaming and yelling and gnashing of the teeth, which is always fun as an actor," says Philip Coffield, who plays Danny, "and it's very tiring to rehearse because it's very intense; it doesn't let up."

Surprisingly, it is Danny who comes out swinging at the play's beginning. He is less than pleased about having to defend someone he sees as barely human. Mike, played by Devin Baker, is smugly satisfied that his lawyer is a Jew, someone he says would be "eliminated in an ideal world" but offers the kind of "humanist, liberal" thinking he can use now. Between the name-calling and screaming, we see that the characters are more complex than we might assume, and we watch them grow closer, which is strange and significant.

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting this piece as a staged reading, for several reasons. First, it is the American premiere of the Canadian Gow's work, and NJT wanted that honor. A staged reading requires rehearsals, but many fewer than a full-scale production. This allowed the company to push forward rapidly, explains NJT artistic director Kathleen Sitzer. Second, Sitzer says, there is a need for this type of transformational art now, as soon as possible, in the wake of events such as the Columbine massacre, the Texas lynching-by-dragging of a black man, the homophobic Wyoming murder, the anti-Semitic LA gunman and the Midwest hate-spree killings.

"These crimes are motivated by nothing beyond ignorance, prejudice and hate," says Sitzer. "We need community education, awareness and dialogue to deal with the problem."

The dialogue doesn't stop with the play. After each performance of Cherry Docs, a panel of three professionals working in fields relevant to the racial issues raised by the play will hold a discussion and interact with the audience. The rotating cast of panelists includes David Warren, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League; state Rep. Joan Bray; the Rev. Martin Rafanan, executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice; Cindy Follman, director of Focus St. Louis' Community Policy and Bridges Program; Rosalyn Borg, executive director of the American Jewish Committee; Michael Kimzey of the Japanese-American Citizens League; and Jan Barrier of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Admirably, the scope of this production is greater still. To expose the message to as many folks as possible, NJT will present Cherry Docs at both the St. Louis Jewish Community Center and the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University, and by invitation only for students at several predominantly minority city colleges and to residents of the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center. A performance was scheduled for inmates at the St. Louis County Justice Center but canceled, says Sitzer, when some at the institution "felt it might be too incendiary for their situation." That is unfortunate, because seldom does art have the opportunity to provoke questions and dialogue among appropriate audiences in the manner that NJT has arranged.

Harris-Stowe State College director of speech Beverly Brennan has instructed the students in her classes, who are mostly African-American, to read the script, and they have discussed the play's theme of prejudice. "It gets their attention," she says of Cherry Docs. "It's very realistic, and the language is pretty strong. Because of the topic, they relate to it immediately."

After Danny fails to provoke Mike into refusing a Jewish lawyer, he challenges Mike to come up with his own defense strategy for court. Whether he does this in anger or to force the unrepentant Mike to ponder his motives for the killing, we must decide for ourselves. Gradually, Danny demonstrates a willingness to "rescue" Mike, as Coffield puts it, and Mike comes to see that his notions of racial supremacy are bogus.

The script does have its questionable moments, though. At times it seems amateurish, heavy-handed or unrealistic. Gow is pushing too hard to condense the characters' wholesale transformations into a single theatrical experience, and the confrontations teeter into the embarrassing zone. Occasionally the story drags. But the final scenes seal the production's success, because they make us think. We see Danny's version of guilt, and, inconceivably, we see Mike comfort him. Through the killing rage, however improbable, there is grace.

Gow has invested the intense two-person play with a number of rhythms that impart a "jazzlike feel," he says. The play comprises seven scenes, each referencing a day of the week, or possibly a nod to Jewish numerology, a mystical study that comes up elsewhere in the script. Each scene is composed of a monologue by each character, followed by dialogue. "The playwright has ideas about tempo and pace," says Cherry Docs' director, veteran Milton Zoth. "Going from monologue to scene is pretty typical and works very well." The structure allows us to compare the interior struggles of the Jewish lawyer and the skinhead criminal, yielding interesting observations. Gow's controversial use of transparencies projected onto a stage wall, instructing the audience on the symbolism of the production, have been called needless and insulting. For the staged reading, NJT will not include these.

Cherry Docs, when it succeeds, takes us to a place we do not often visit -- a surprising moment when we can forgive the sickest deeds and offer care and redemption, maybe even empathy, to the cruelest of men.

The New Jewish Theatre presents staged readings of Cherry Docs at 5 and 9 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Wolfson Studio Theatre in the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Dr., and at 5 and 9 p.m. Dec. 11 at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, on the Washington University campus. Call 432-5700, ext. 3175, for ticket information.

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