30 September 2016

Race, by David Mamet

David Mamet’s Race seems to be a play carefully crafted to make every audience member uncomfortable—whites, African Americans, Hispanics, men, women. No one is spared in Mamet’s play. The play centers on the law firm of Jack and Henry, who end up (not entirely by choice) defending the wealthy, white Charles after he is accused of raping an African American woman. Jack, a white lawyer, trusts and relies on their African American paralegal, Susan, while the African American lawyer, Henry, regards her with suspicion. Through a series of ‘mistakes’ Susan sticks Jack and Henry with Charles’ no-win case (whether they win or lose the legal case the firm’s reputation is compromised), and Jack manages to find an angle to create doubt about whether Charles committed rape. Then their main problems become keeping Charles from purging his increasingly guilty conscience to the press, and the mutual distrust between the members of the law firm.

The WVU Theatre Department’s production of Race, directed by Jerry McGonigle, was an excellent performance of a not particularly good play. Some of the major problems of the play are the relatively reductive ways in which Mamet deals with race, and the caricature of both lawyers and racialized characters. As a panelist in the WVU post-show talk back pointed out, the play’s treatment of race feels oddly archaic, oddly stuck in the Civil Rights discourse of the 1950s or 60s, which was already outdated by 2009, and is even more so by 2016.

That being said, the performance at WVU was extremely well acted, with probably the strongest performance coming from Andra Ward Jr. (Henry). Ward seemed the most comfortable in his character—and I imagine these are all difficult characters to inhabit—portraying Henry’s haughty self-confidence through both his casual superiority over Susan and his confrontational dominance over Charles. Paradoxically, being an African American man somehow puts Henry at the peak of the play’s power hierarchy (although until the end of the play Jack doesn’t realize that racial bias implicates him as well). When the subject is race, Charles knows how to utilize white guilt to exert a kind of authority over white people, and he assumes/enforces patriarchal authority over Susan. Ward’s performance conveyed the cocky arrogance of one of Mamet’s caricature lawyers—someone who behaves as though others are there to serve him.

The other members of the law firm—Rick Mugrage (Jack) and Emana Rachelle (Susan)—also gave strong performances. Magrage was a bit stiff in the initial confrontational interview between the lawyers and Charles, but Mugrage, Rachelle, and Ward had excellent chemistry. Much of the play revolves around the professional relationship between Jack and Susan. Rachelle and Mugrage played this fraught relationship fantastically. Rachelle in particular played her role as though Susan knew something the others didn’t, which puts the character in a fascinating light—a character whose loyalty to the firm comes into question at the end of the play. Whether or not we agree that Susan did what’s right (or whether we even agree on what Susan did—which Mamet doesn’t clarify), Rachelle gave us a performance the we could look back on and see that there was always an ambivalence, though an ambivalence that only acquires meaning at the end of the show.

If there’s one complaint I would make about the performances it is with Joe Bussey’s portrayal of Charles. I think Bussey got the performance half right. In Bussey’s performance I saw the nervousness, self-consciousness, and guilt of a white man accused of raping an African American woman whom he genuinely thought loved him (or at least cared about him to some extent). That guilt was the part Bussey got spot on. What was missing from the portrayal was the other half of Charles’ personality: the charismatic rich man to whom no one has said ‘no’ in 40 years. Near the beginning of the play, Jack asks Susan what she thought of Charles when he first came in, and she mentions his charisma; later, Henry notes that Charles is used to getting his own way. Bussey’s performance didn’t suggest that this is a charismatic character used to power and control, it suggested only that this is a white man accused of interracial rape.

23 September 2016

Sordid Lives, by Del Shores

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and Del Shores’ Sordid Lives goes big—big hair, big personalities, big problems, and big laughs. The MT Pockets production of this black comedy about white trash brought a bit of Texas to the West Virginia stage.

The play revolves around the funeral for Peggy Ingram, an elderly woman who died tripping over the two wooden legs of the man with whom she was having an affair. She leaves behind a rowdy and colorful set of characters who populate the play: her sister Sissy Hickey, who just wants to muddle through and quit smoking; her daughters Latrelle Williamson and La Vonda Dupree, who take very different attitudes toward their mother’s wild final six months; her son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, locked in a mental institution for being a gay transvestite and Tammy Winette impersonator; GW Nethercroft, the distraught veteran whose legs Peggy tripped over; and Noleta Nethercroft, GW’s justifiably outraged wife and La Vonda’s best friend. There are also the denizens of the local bar: Bitsy Mae Harling, a singer who became good friends with Peggy during her final months; along with Wardell Owens, who carries the guilt of getting his best friend Brother Boy sent to the institution, and Odell Owens, who isn’t particularly bright and has been deeply scarred by witnessing the death of a pig. And outside, but intricately connected to this small Texas community is Ty Williamson, Latrelle’s son. He’s a gay actor living in New York. And he’s had 27 therapists in three years.

As one can imagine, Sordid Lives is more a character driven than a plot driven play. The plot itself is pretty fragmented and mostly provides a series of threads that connect to a certain extent, but also run fairly independently of one another. But rather than rely on a coherent plot, the show runs through those big Texas personalities. From Noleta and La Vonda pulling a Thelma and Louise and holding up Wardell’s bar, to Brother Boy’s Tammy Winette impersonation and his therapist, Dr. Eve Bolinger’s, attempts to fuck him straight, the play is run through with big characters and big acting.

The MT Pockets production was extremely funny, and definitely involved some big acting. Raquel Nethken (Noleta) and Tawnya Drake (La Vonda) took their drunken Thelma and Louise act and ran with it. Of course, as a gay transvestite Tammy Winette impersonator, it would be hard to play Brother Boy small, but Colin Crawford and Lauren Swann (Dr. Bolinger) played well off one another, as the sassy Southern queen who isn’t motivated to become straight but participates out of politeness, and the boozy small town therapist desperate to prove her ‘de-homozexualization’ theory and get on Oprah.

Despite the penchant for big performances, some characters demanded more subtly and stability, including Adam Messenger (Ty) and Charlotte Haas (Sissy). Ty’s role is a challenge because the majority of his performance is a monologue spoken to the audience/therapist (with some intriguing symbolism there), so Messenger largely had to rely on himself without other actors to play off of. But his meditative and reflective performance took us through the challenges and self-doubt of being gay but coming from a conservative Southern Baptist community. Sissy is one of my favorite characters because she finds herself caught in between various feuding factions, when all she wants to do is bury her sister and give up smoking. The humor Haas brought to the role was subtle, but really endearing—it wasn’t a big, gun-waving, drunken shouting part, but her attempts to navigate the various relationships in play around her provided a number of opportunities for jokes and ironic understatement. Haas also had one of the most convincing Texan accents, which was one area some of the cast struggled. Texas has, at least stereotypically, a very distinct accent, and it wasn’t always there in this production.