C. ROBERT JONES's play at the Mixed Blood Theatre is titled Colorblind, and there you have it. Sara Canfield is a blind white woman and Raymond Gordon is the young black man she hires to read aloud. Color-blind... Colorblind. Of course.
Jones is determined to pack a lifetime of conflict into each of these characters over a scant two hours. In the opening scene, Ray (Omari Shakir) arrives for an interview with Sara (Marquetta Senters). The job involves a few hours of newspaper reading each morning for good money. But he's late and she's rigid about such things. She sends him packing and he cries racism, slamming the door behind him. In "life" (or whatever one calls that thing that is not on stage), he would never walk through the door again. But contrivance has it that Ray carries an umbrella, which item he has left on Sara's couch where she has sat on it, thus spilling a cup of coffee. Enter Ray, take two. This time it's the start of a beautiful friendship.
But first signals must be crossed and misunderstandings misunderstood. Ray, we learn, served time for burglary, and Sara, formerly a renowned painter, lost her sight in a hit and run, and they both remain awfully testy after the fact. Spats and slights and overreaction. Prejudices both imagined and, less frequently, actual. Much recrimination. "Why do you throw everything back in my face?" Sara asks in the middle of the play; the question is never adequately answered. But there is always the umbrella trick to fall back on (the play must be set during New York's monsoon season) and Ray will return to that purpose, post-huff, another half-dozen times. Only the appealing performances of actors Shakir and Senters keep this material from falling flat. Eventually, a rickety bridge built from mutual marginalization--his blackness, her blindness--will span their differences. They both have a lot to learn.
Yet with few exceptions, the least effective way to talk about race onstage (or anything else for that matter) is to come right out and talk about it. Ray and Sara spend much of the play topping each other's pain: "I'm black--we've been on the defensive for 400 years." Only in college classrooms--and in the overactive imaginations of conservative newspaper columnists--do people habitually speak as representatives of a societal set or subset: as aBlank, I feel la-dee-da about dee-dee-dum. The implication here seems to be that if a person were not speaking subjectively as a Blank that particular day, she would naturally revert to the white-het-male vernacular. In theory-tongue: Theater that defines itself by opposition reifies that which it opposes.
Hence the irony. The harder artists try to corral the elusive beast of Identity (capital I) into a tidy performance pen, the less likely they are to capture the real thing. Instead we get impersonations of Identity--mounted trophy heads that mouth the right resentments while severed from all the other dramatic organs that breathe life into a character. Or we get the domesticated version--ideas about Identity diluted to didacticism perfect for petting-zoo tours favored by schools and grant panels. Colorblind succumbs to both these Identity-artifices by dwelling on the exposition of the already obvious.
Given such muddled motives, it may be no surprise that while playwright Jones and director Sharon Walton have reduced the dramatic formula to one simple set and two characters, they still have trouble getting it right. For the "most talented woman artist since Georgia O'Keefe," Sara is a lousy decorator. Her collection consists of a few unremarkable African statues, a replica Greek bust, and a framed Doisneau poster (fortunately not "The Kiss"). For a rich person, her shoddy stereo (cassette deck only) is stranger still. Nitpicking this, yes. But Ray's quirks of character demand more serious attention. He speaks fondly of It's a Wonderful Life. He digs Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart film festivals. One hesitates to pigeonhole his tastes by stereotype, but some anachronistic cultural referents strain credibility. Ray has seen the movie Ordinary People on television three times. That's two too many.
But then at the end of the second act, we learn that our man Ray "has been playing fast and loose with the truth." In a series of plot twists, each more ingenious than the last, Ray reveals the real status of his missing family while constructing one last fiction to assuage Sara's self-excoriation. But as with the disjointed film hit The Usual Suspects, the whole house of cards must come down for this plot to work. Ray is inscrutable (if apparently beneficent) by the curtain call, and the audience, bemused or baffled, is left playing 52-card pickup. CP
Colorblind runs indefinitely; call 338-6131 for tickets.
IT TAKES A gifted artist to revive a tried and true genre. When three such minds work toward that end, the result is an awesome synergy--at least in the case of Djola Bernard Branner, Brian Chapman-Evans and Daniel Alexander Jones. Each has set local stages afire with works in dance, theater, and points in between. Now, with Diva X: An Extravaganza, their first collaborative effort premiering this weekend at Patrick's Cabaret, they take on personal and cultural identity while performing in drag. Their characters, a collection of strong-minded and hard-bodied women ranging from blaxploitation heroines to musical icons, "will undoubtedly work some nerves in the room," promises Branner.