NEW YORK PRESS columns Part 3

 
“Good Play, Great Audience”: Black Girl and Por’Knockers

A great theater needs a great audience, and the New Federal Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side has an audience any theater in town could envy. Sarah and I have been there twice this year, first to see the 20th anniversary revival of Ntozake Shange's *for colored girls* and then just now for the 25th anniversary revival of J.e [stet] Franklin's *Black Girl*, and both occasions were tremendously satisfying experiences. The cliche about black audiences is that they're more responsive than white people, and that's true as far as it goes, but it's usually said to indicate that black theatergoers aren't sophisticated enough to know what proper behavior is. It's true that for white people, trained to sit on our hands and keep our mouths shut in the presence of kulcha, it can be unnerving to attend a show with a mostly black audience who talk back to the stage as freely as they would to a gospel preacher or a 42nd Street movie screen. (Any movie screen, really. My favorite moment watching *Devil in a Blue Dress* at 19th and Broadway was when Denzel Washington got home and picked up the phone just as it stopped ringing. Someone in the crowd called out "Star 69!" and the whole house roared.) What's remarkable to me, though, is not so much when a black audience is noisy as when it's silent -- you feel the spectators breathing with the play, tracking every emotional nuance not with the intellect but with the heart.

*Black Girl* is a curious theatrical artifact. In its time (1971) it was still one of the first plays written by a black woman with a female protagonist. The style is very dated. Formally it resembles the kind of hokey '50s domestic drama George C. Wolfe spoofed in *The Colored Museum*'s "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play": teenaged Billie Jean (Sabrina DePina) aspires to be a dancer despite the discouragement of her fat-slobby sisters, her AWOL daddy, and her cleaning-woman mother. But looking at it now, you can see it as a forerunner of black TV sitcoms of the '70s -- not so much *The Jeffersons* as the tackier ones like *What's Happenin'*. The cliche characters now practically look like mythological figures -- the Fearsome, Late-Rising Mother; the Mediating Grandmother; the Light-Skinned Daughter Who Made Good. The language is raunchy, the lives are chaotic and far from *Leave It to Beaver*, and there's no attempt to make an issue out of absentee fathers or teenage mothers, which are treated with a matter-of-factness that would be heartbreaking if it weren't also hilarious. When come-and-go-daddy Earl (Adam Wade) drives up in a Cadillac sporting shiny new dudewear dispensing C-notes like Pez, you know he didn't just get promoted to VP at Goldman Sachs. And the women don't wait for him to extend any largesse -- they hold him down and rifle his pockets for cash like transplant doctors snatching donated organs out of car-crash casualties.

In Anderson Johnson's savvy production, the audience gets a big kick out of seeing these characters played by real down-home actors (Lynn Dandridge and Maggie Henderson as the sisters) and beloved veterans, most notably the culture icon Leslie Uggams. Last seen crooning Cole Porter in Lincoln Center Theater's *Anything Goes*, here she slumps in like Roseanne suffering caffeine withdrawal and yells "Girl, you want me to get a stick and beat the black off a you?" I found myself wondering, "Doesn't Leslie Uggams have better things to do than a way-off-Broadway revival?" Then again, with an audience that gasps, sighs, and applauds every plot turn as if at a Snidely Whiplash melodrama, what more could a performer want?

By contrast, *Por'knockers* at the Vineyard Theater, also by a black woman writer, left the audience deadly cold. Playwright Lynn Nottage managed to cobble together the textbook elements for drama -- conflict, suspense, the non-naturalistic framing device -- without giving her characters a single shred of recognizable human behavior. We're asked to believe that five passionately committed political activists could plan and flawlessly execute a terrorist action without agreeing why. Some very promising actors (I'm thinking especially of Afemo Omilami) give excruciating performances, directed in a style I can only call the Yell School of Drama. Political activists are like performance artists, easy targets for cheap-shot satirists. I can think of at least one major exception, though, and I meant to mention this last week when I was panning David Hare's *Racing Demon.* Hare made his name in this country with 1982's *Plenty*, in which the sublime Kate Nelligan played a woman stultified with rage that her adult life has never provided any satisfaction to match that of a single act of bravery she committed as a teenaged Resistance fighter behind enemy lines during World War II. I've yet to see a better play about the intersection of politics and inner life.

December 6, 1995

Slant and Black Ink

La Mama ETC, the legendary East Village emporium "dedicated to ze playwright and all aspects of ze theatre," year in and year out sprinkles its schedule with a good number of performance troupes from Japan, China, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia, as well as providing a home base for Asian-American dance-theater makers like Min Tanaka and Kei Takei. I hardly ever go to see any of them. But Sarah and I were suckered in by a show with the fetching title *Big Dicks, Asian Men* performed by Slant, a new company of three Asian-American men: Rick Ebihara (third-generation Japanese-American), Wayland Quintero (Hawaiian), and Perry Yung (Chinese descent). I assumed it was a gay company, and I was hoping we'd discover a wonderful new group, the Asian equivalent of Pomo Afro Homos from San Francisco or Culture Clash, the non-gay Latino trio from Los Angeles. The time is ripe for more artists to emerge telling the story of contemporary Asian-American experience, to till the ground broken by the likes of Amy Tan and David Henry Hwang.

Well, Slant wasn't that. I don't fault them for not living up to my expectations. They're just a bunch of guys doing their work, like a young rock band rehearsing in the garage, learning how to be stageworthy. What they have in their favor is that they're all distinct personalities. The piece is framed by a police lineup hunting a suspect accused of selling fake Gucci bags on Canal Street. The setup plays on the cliche about all Asians looking alike, but as each one takes the spotlight of course they're vastly different: Quintero with his long hair, wide eyes, and no-problems friendliness; Yung with his Richard Gere good looks and faux British accent; Ebihara sullen as a rockstar and anything but eager to please. If only their material were as individuated. Like many performers trying to make comic entertainment from an ethnic minority political consciousness, they've started by addressing racial stereotypes. But their sketches about Canal Street hucksters, Chinese food deliverymen, sumo wrestlers, and patients at a penis-enlargement clinic are such generic manipulations of cultural cliches that Sarah could have written them. I was surprised that there was no reference to gay experience at all, though there was plenty of talk about dick size, the kind of talk usually conducted in public only by gay men -- I guess I now know just how much Asian men share our phallic obsession.

The dick talk continued in Ed DuRante's [accent over e] "Man in Polyester Suit," the first of four one-acts in *Black Ink*, the first fruit of Playwrights Horizons' African-American Playwrights Unit. Coming out of the closet over a game of pool, white-boy Deuce tries to badger his black friend Jack into a series of confessions: 1) that he looks at other guys' dicks in the shower; 2) that a long list of famous people are homos (dubious about Huey Newton, Jack balks completely at Jimi Hendrix); 3) that Jack posed for the famous Mapplethorpe photo that gives the play its title, and 4) therefore Jack himself is gay. The play captures well the thin ice that separates macho bluster from the depths of racism and homophobia, and director Pamela Berlin expertly manages the play's hairpin turns from jovial comedy to danger -- when, for example, a playful "Faggot!" turns into a stinging "Nigger!"

DuRante's play and Beverly Smith-Dawson's "Cover," which concerns a computer pirate whom the Witness Protection Program turns into a black man who models himself on Larry Fishburne, are the kind of high-concept lively dialogues that one-act festivals thrive on. Lynn Martin's "The Bodhisattva Locksmith" is more sustained, more ambitious, and more accomplished, but it's accomplished fake art, like an episode of *thirtysomething*. The guy who comes to the rescue of burgled May and her locked-out neighbor Nina is a Buddhist named Christian who knew May in college and who, after his six-year-old son was kidnaped, gave up his career as a diplomat and devoted his life to locking things up: "I'm still involved in national security, only now I'm doing it one door at a time." Martin's penchant for tidy cause-and-effect psychology and straight-faced platitudes ("Don't be too attached...love with an open hand") has little to do with life as we know it, but it may earn her fame and fortune writing for television.

By far the most impressive piece in *Black Ink* was Kia Corthron's "Life by Asphyxiation," a dense yet succinct portrait of a man on death row. At first you think the play is going to be a routine generation-gap dialogue between JoJo, who's spent 32 years awaiting his death sentence, and Nat Turner, a specter out of history who shows up headed for a speedy execution full of fiery preaching about the evils of racism. But Turner is quickly dispatched. As JoJo entertains other visitors -- the poker-playing guard, the teenaged girl he raped and killed -- and plans a visit from his long-estranged wife, hopefully bearing a picture of his rarely-glimpsed daughter, you realize this is the emotional inventory of a man facing death, sometimes with blunt equanimity and sometimes with hysterical fear. Under Gilbert McCauley's direction, Ray Aranha gave an amazing performance as JoJo. It was very subtle. He played the kind of guy you think you know everything about in one glance, a blocky, not-very-interesting old man who's lived his life in a cage. But he surrendered himself so fully to each glimmer of hope, remorse, terror, and curiosity that by the end of the 40-minute play he seemed as big and mysterious as the universe.

December 13, 1995

 

“Just a Kiss Away”: Jam on the Groove and Quills

I had a dream not too long ago in which Linda Hunt was holding forth among a group of people, and she started slapping $20 bills on everybody in sight, including me. "What's this for?" I asked her. She said, "Go see *Jam.*" I assumed she meant *Jam on the Groove*, the show of hip-hop dancing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. And when a 4'10" lesbian Academy Award winner says "Jump," I tend to say, "How high?" Of course, I didn't need her dream dollars; I got press comps. Sarah's not wild about dance so I took Harvey, my own personal dreamboat. Linda Hunt was right. *Jam* rocks, from the minute you walk in off the street into dry-ice smoke and DJ Scribble blasting and scratching from a tower over the graffiti-stained stage 'til you walk out the door a little over an hour later. It's short and dense.

There's a wacky deja vu quality about *Jam on the Groove* for anybody who's been in New York since 1980, when what we now know as rap/hiphop culture was starting out. Now it's a billion-dollar industry; then it was a mostly underground street scene of graffiti artists (known as writers) and breakdancers who made their art on the fly literally under risk of arrest. For one hot moment the dancers and the scratching DJs and the artists (most famously Keith Haring) co-created each other's art and invented a sound and a look that collectively expressed the exuberance and defiance of hip urban black/Latino/gay culture. Then the style got exported via films and videos and B-boy fashion, it became commercially successful, some people died, some people got famous. Today the social context that *Jam on the Groove* came out of doesn't exist. What you see onstage at the Minetta Lane Theater is an artifact of a dead culture.

But it's not a reproduction -- several of the guys are the original inventors of hiphop dancing, and they're as free and creative and thrilling to watch as the Nicholas Brothers or Fred Astaire. The show has no narrative. It's just a string of sketches, a la *Jerome Robbins' Broadway* and some have a corny TV-variety-show feel. The best moments happen when they basically form a circle and watch one another take center stage for one amazing, acrobatic display after another. The individual dancers have their own specialties and techniques; Harvey and I were both hot for Ken Swift, and the upper-body strength of "Orko" (Roger Romero) continually bowled me over. But what impressed me most were the spiritual values that radiate from the show -- dance as prayer, dance as ritual combat, dance as community.

Another version of the same satisfaction came from seeing the almost always great Mark Morris Dance Group at BAM. Harvey and I got there late because we didn't notice that the opening night tickets said 7:00, so we missed *A Spell* and the Stephen Foster piece. But all three of the dances we saw were just fucking beautiful pieces of dance-music-theater. In *The Office* seven people dressed in drab colors and schlumpy sweaters sat in waiting-room chairs and made up frisky, vaguely Slavic folk dances (to Dvorak's *5 Bagatelles*) until a woman with a clipboard appeared and escorted one of them away. This continued until only one person was left -- *Ten Little Indians* with a creepy, heartbreaking aftertaste of ethnic cleansing. *World Power* had a Lou Harrison score played live by the fabulous Gamelan Son of Lion while the dancers created shapes and images from Indonesian shadow puppetry, abetted by Michael Chybowski's footlighting that doubled their numbers on the back wall. I can often feel intimidated around classical music and dance; I don't know much but I want to know more. Part of Mark Morris's genius is that he knows how to speak to people like me without condescending. He assumes you have the same passionate curiosity about the world he does and the same ability to connect the dots. He's ruled by exquisite taste and theatricality and a surprising humility. At curtain call, his first bow was one of gratitude to his kickass company, who deserved it.

Talk about kickass companies -- six ferocious actors are currently burning down the house in Doug Wright's *Quills* at New York Theater Workshop, a heady layer cake of marzipan and bloody meat, frosted with ink and jizz. The Marquis de Sade is locked up in Charenton Asylum, incessantly churning out his hilarious, filthy tales of sexual perversion, while his rich wife, the corrupt asylum director, and a soft-hearted priest do everything they can to stop him. The production, directed by Howard Shalwitz of Washington's madcap Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is a riot of Grand Guignol effects (jarring sound, odd-angle lighting, stylized costumes and makeup). Rocco Sisto as the Marquis channels the over-the-top 19th century style of the late great Charles Ludlam, and Ludlam's former colleague Lola Pashalinski plays his wife with her usual gift for embodying impossible opposites at the same time -- here, outrage and lasciviousness. Meanwhile, Daniel Oreskes and Jefferson Mays play the asylum officials with the quick wit and understated panic of Joe Orton's hilariously insane authority figures. Wright's play is a little schematic in showing how those who repress de Sade end up acting out his perverted fantasies, and it ultimately doesn't say anything new about sexual hypocrisy. But it raises many provocative and timely questions: does nasty art cause nasty behavior or simply reflect human nature? if violence and sexual atrocity are so bad, why do we love *Pulp Fiction* so much? And here's one for Mayor Guiliani: if you shut down all the sex shops in town, what's going to happen to the sexual energy that those emporia are designed to contain? If I understand it correctly, *Quills* is basically saying the choice is: jizz on the porno booth floor, or blood in the streets.

December 20, 1995

“Our Favorite Things”: Best of 1995

The year in review:

The Show That Changed My Life Most: *The Heiress* on Broadway. The exquisite torture of Gerald Gutierrez's direction -- a stately pace despite accelerating tension -- and the liberating anger of Cherry Jones's incandescent performance in the title role blew the dust off what might have been a ho-hum period revival. I needed a date for the opening, so I invited Sarah, who'd been having a bad day and crowed into the phone, "Rescued by glamor!" She was so dazzled by the play and grateful to me for bringing her to the fancy opening night party that she proposed we do a column together, a sort of Siskel-and-Ebert number as two out queers covering theater for *LGNY* (aka *OBGYN*), a well-meaning but unread gay biweekly. This perverse experiment in subverting the traditional critical stance ("There's only one correct opinion and it's mine") was so fascinating and fun that we brought it to the *New York Press* et voila!

Best Show: In the four categories that count (script, direction, acting, and design), four productions tower over all the rest, so I may as well get them out of the way immediately: Donald Margulies's *The Model Apartment* directed by Lisa Peterson, set by Neil Patel, with ace performances by Lynn Cohen and Roberta Wallach; Mike Leigh's *Ecstasy* directed by Scott Elliott, set by Kevin Price and Zaniz, costumes by Eric Becker, and a fine cast headed by Caroline Seymour; Shakespeare in the Park's production of *The Tempest* directed by George C. Wolfe (which lost 50% of its magic when it moved to Broadway), set by Riccardo Hernandez, starring Patrick Stewart; and the one that I'd have to say was the best all year, Richard Foreman's *I've Got the Shakes*, in which Foreman proved once more why he earned his MacArthur "genius" grant -- he makes the densest, funniest, wisest, most beautiful theater a diehard intellectual dreamer can make.

Best Play: This was a year when directors and performers turned so-so scripts into gangbuster shows. But *Arcadia* at Lincoln Center didn't quite get the production that befit Tom Stoppard's literary-scientific proof that love makes the world go round.

Best Performance: A tie for best. Nothing surpassed Seymour's sly, numb Jean in *Ecstasy* or Jan Leslie Harding's outrageous physical and vocal slapstick as Madeline X in *I've Got the Shakes*.

Memorable Performances: Of which there were no lack this year. In roughly chronological order: Lisa Banes, Victor Garber, and Billy Crudup in *Arcadia*; Alec Mapa in *A Language of Their Own*; Willem Dafoe in the Wooster Group's *The Hairy Ape*; Ted Bales in *Party*; David Rakoff and Amy Sedaris in *One Woman Shoe*; Dylan McDermott in *Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man*; Kate Valk in the Wooster Group's *The Emperor Jones*; Myra Carter in *Something Unspoken*; Catherine Curtin in *Tallahassee*; Arliss Howard in *The Monogamist*; Michael Cumpsty in *Racing Demon*; Leslie Uggams in *Black Girl*; Ray Aranha in *Life by Asphyxiation*; and Rocco Sisto, Lola Pashalinski, and Daniel Orekes in *Quills*.

Excellent Direction: Lisa Peterson and Scott Elliott (who did *The Monogamist* as well as *Ecstasy*) joined my pantheon of major directors this year alongside longtime favorites Foreman and Elizabeth LeCompte of the Wooster Group. David Dillon proved he's a better director than playwright with *Party*, the guilty pleasure of the year. Ariel Orr Jordan (*Floating Rhoda*) and Howard Shalwitz (*Quills*) put themselves on the map.

Fascinating but What *Was* That?: W. David Hancock's *Deviant Craft*, an ambitious but ultimately evanescent play that got a staggering production by Melanie Joseph at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, with incredible sets and lighting by Teddy Jefferson and amazing performances by Ching Valdes-Aran and Lee Nagrin.

The Play I'd Most Like to See in Another Production: Paul Schmidt's Lewis Carroll adaptation *Alice* without the annoying aspects of Robert Wilson's production at BAM -- namely Tom Waits' non-sequitur songs and a German cast that spoke alternately in English and in German, who knows why.

Best Musical: Dudley Saunders's *Death Blues* at Dixon Place.

Best Dangerous Dancing: *Unsafe, Unsuited*, an improvisation by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Keith Hennessy, and Patrick Scully at P.S. 122, and *Jam on the Groove* at the Minetta Lane.

Stinky Shows: *Harvey Milk* at City Opera; *I Was Looking at the Ceiling and I Saw the Sky* at Serious Fun.

Overhyped: *The Food Chain,* *The Cryptogram*, *Mathew [sic] in the School of Life.*

Best Use of Lipsynching to Diana Ross: James Lecesne as a suicidal gay teen in *Word of Mouth*, pausing between pills to mouth along to "Endless Love" and then dancing as a triumphant survivor to "I'm Coming Out."

Weirdest Letter: After I wrote a one-paragraph rave review of *The Emperor Jones*, Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte wrote to complain that I was sabotaging the group's relationship with the press by writing about a piece that's "still in development" -- even though the production has been touring internationally for more than two years.

Cute Guys I'd Like to Date If I Didn't Already Have a Boyfriend: Ken Krugman (*Splendora*), Jay Corcoran (*Party*) if he would quit trimming his body hair, Max Perlich (Jennifer Jason Leigh's boyfriend-husband in Ulu Grosbard's movie *Georgia* -- is that cheating?), Don McKellar (the stuttering petshop owner in Atom Egoyan's movie *Exotica*).

R.I.P.: William Duff-Griffin, Frank Maya, George Osterman, Tim Melester, Essex Hemphill, and Reza Abdoh.

December 27, 1995

“The Ontological Guide to the Universe”: The Universe

There are few reliable pleasures in the New York cultural season. Woody Allen movies are one of mine. In a former life I used to get invited to screenings, which is the best possible way to see new Woody Allen movies, especially when they're held at the Brill Building's intimate Broadway Screening Room, which has the plushest seats in town. But I'm not above standing in line with reg'lar people. I like to go the first day if at all possible, so I can form my own opinion before I catch someone else's. Sometimes the movie's great, like *Crimes and Misdemeanors*. Sometimes it's awful, like *Manhattan Murder Mystery*. Most of the time, they're so-so with an extraordinary star performance, like Mira Sorvino in *Mighty Aphrodite*. Doesn't matter. Every fall there's a new Woody, and I never miss one.

Every winter, this time of year, Richard Foreman puts on one of his Ontological-Hysteric Theater productions. They started out at his Soho loft, then he was at the Public for a few years, La Mama one year, the Performing Garage for several, and for the last five years he's been ensconced upstairs at St. Mark's Church. The first one I saw, *Rhoda in Potatoland* (1977), rearranged my brain cells permanently. I've missed a few since then, but I've seen some more than once, and I was even in one (the film section of *Film Is Evil, Radio Is Good*), so it balances out.

Foreman himself admits that he's always writing the same basic play. It's about the search for enlightenment and the banal everyday human activities that get in the way -- the stuff of religious theater disguised as Caligari carnival with Cornell-box sets, actors in madhouse makeup and wacky costumes with deadpan voices and slapstick physicality, loud noises, and lights in your eyes. The first 15 minutes I'm always dazzled. I start planning return visits with friends who *have* to see this. A half hour later I'm checking the time -- when will this be over? -- less out of boredom than the existential anxiety this essentially static theater intentionally induces.

It's hard to say what makes a great Foreman show. I guess it's mostly the acting. Now that his wife and ur-leading lady Kate Manheim is out of commission, Foreman sometimes pulls in other extraordinary downtown actors: Lola Pashalinski, David Patrick Kelly, Will Patton, Lili Taylor. After a string of just-okay plays, last year's *I've Got the Shakes* blew me away. I went twice. Jan Leslie Harding's wobbly performance -- smeared lipstick, always adjusting her stockings, moaning "This is really gonna hurt" before smacking herself with a plastic hammer -- made me laugh so hard. Perhaps inevitably, *The Universe (i.e: How It Works)* is a bit of a letdown. The performers, recruited from younger downtown troupes, hit their dizzying marks without breaking through to inspired giddiness.

*The Universe* seems to be a Jungian Garden of Eden story. Tony Torn plays a kind of querulous God figure, only with a white Restoration comedy wig instead of white beard. He looks askance at James Urbaniak's preoccupation with breakfast cereal: "How can you justify eating that tiny stuff?" Eve, or Anima, shows up in the form of Mary McBride sporting high-heeled sneakers, black velvet dress, babushka and beret. She and James consider kissing. They curse each other. He yells "Go away! Come back! Go away! Come back!" The voice of God offers him "empty space," but he settles for sex (in the form of cherry pie and warm milk). In the last line of the play he realizes he made the wrong choice: "Oh, shit!"

At least that's the story I made up for myself. There's no real story, just a continuous stream of come-and-go dream images. In one section everyone wears funny noses. The two men put on flouncy aprons and swirl them. James holds a clock over his crotch and falls to the floor in sexual frenzy as five stage helpers wearing black plastic turbans and silver eye patches on their chins wiggle their fingers at him. The pleasure of Richard Foreman's theater is peering inside his consciousness and seeing what his imagination holds up as a mirror of the world we live in every day. Foreman himself sits in a black plywood booth in the front row staring, like us, at the antics onstage through a plexiglass panel on which is grease-pencilled a legend that can be read as existential mockery or Zen prayer. It says, "This is the thing you have always hoped for: heaven on earth."

January 9, 1996

See other NYP columns: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-27

  
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