The Great American History Theatre
The Hand of God
LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT SYL Jones has authored and produced over 30 plays in the last three years. Some appear on state and national stages. Others are issue-related pieces scripted on deadline for unglamorous industry auditoriums. He also composes columns for the Star Tribune. With the accumulated grants and prizes of a recognized artist and the projected schedule of a hack, Syl Jones seems the very definition of a working writer.
It is appropriate, then, that The Brotherhood, premiering by commission at the Great American History Theatre, concerns black workers' struggle to unionize. Henry and Smokehouse work the rails as porters of the Pullman Company. The former is savvy enough to view the plantation-style customer interface as an acting challenge; the latter, young and hot-headed, hustles women and contraband liquor for paying passengers. Both are fired and turn to organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. With only a few thin subplots involving Henry and Smoke's wives, Jones's script could be accurately reduced to a slogan on a lapel pin: Union, Yes!
Holding each actor to a few easily identified gestures, director Richard D. Thompson fails to fatten the characterizations of an often anemic script. Smoke's commanding wife, Bonita (Gay Glenn), punctuates virtually every line by pointing with the bent knuckle of her index finger. The company's thuggish pseudo-Pinkerton McKinsey (Jim Stowell) mugs as if he's picking a fight with a dog, and speaks with the gravelly growl of a cartoon pirate. Henry (Joe Nathan Thomas) coughs a lot and speaks solely in the swollen cadences of a pulpit orator. Only the socialist organizer and intellectual A. Philip Randolph--played with verve by Shawn Hamilton--emerges with charisma; it helps that the playwright hordes his best writing for this admirable figure.
As the play wears on, the porters must grapple with the ever-mutating treachery of the greedy Pullman people. Randolph is unsuccessfully bribed and sexually slandered. Even McKinsey, the company representative with the most organic racial hatred, finds himself disposable when he becomes a liability. The abuses of wealth and class privilege ultimately know no racial boundaries. It's an obvious point, and one well-taken in a time when politicians and the media divide and conquer by habitually manipulating the ugliest public sentiment about crime and social spending. I like Jones's politics, if not his style. In the final evaluation, an educational tone more suited to the corporate lunchroom crowds out the complexity that might have made The Brotherhooda stronger play.
If Jones concerns himself with the correction of a societal wrong, Cyndi James Gossett's autobiographical one-woman show, The Hand of God, excludes the outside world in the cause of personal healing. Delivered as a one-sided dialogue with an invisible shrink, the script traces Gossett's experiences from big-city drug dabbling and abortion to beauty pageant triumph and a Las Vegas musical revue. Through the whole Valley of the Dolls trajectory, Gossett is beleaguered by animal nightmares: bears, eagles, white horses. We learn that repressed memories of sexual abuse linger behind her social dysfunction. The soundtrack echoes plaintively with the flapping of wings. Gossett has a lot of pain inside and she's going to work it out right on stage.
Composed of one long act with no intermission, this is the kind of play that has one longingly eyeing the emergency exit signs. Still, I hesitate to give The Hand of God the drubbing it has strenuously earned. The 10th commandment of liberal humanism instructs us to criticize the action and not the individual; as a practicing "licensed spiritual therapist," Gossett must be familiar with the notion. Yet that is all but impossible here, where the action and the individual are one and the same. No critic will step forward to tell a performer that her take on childhood sexual abuse lacked a certain pizazz. Nor is this column the most prudent place to debate the reliability of recovered memories. What to do, then? A similar dilemma last year inspired a New Yorker critic to take the infamous leap of writing an anti-review of a dance performance sight unseen.
Unfortunately, such sophistry has yet to gain professional currency out here in the sticks, and we must practice our trade the old fashioned way. If I had not witnessed it firsthand, I might never have believed that an audience could give this play a standing ovation. One might attribute that to ordinary dodgy taste; people also pay to hear John Tesh. But here's another hypothesis: Like 12-step testimonials and alien abduction accounts, sexual abuse recovery tales constitute their own genre, and follow self-contained narrative poetics. No one tells the alcoholic quaking at a podium that his jaundice-inducing vermouth binge deviates from Aristotelian ideals. Form and content are subordinated to an archetypal script that implies personal growth. And so it is with the trials of Gossett.
Theater or institutionalized solipsism? You make the call. CP
The Brotherhood runs through February 25; call 292-4323 for tickets and showtimes.The Hand of God runs through February 18; 339-4494.