IT'S A FREE country. Pillsbury House Theatre producing artistic director Ralph Remington, apparently unfettered by racial alliance, can present whatever plays he sees fit. It's his privilege to ignore libraries of black scripts which merit staging and countless black professionals who deserve work. The Constitution guarantees that, despite black theater needing all the support and continued exposure it can get, Remington can keep producing white scripts with integrated casts. The fact that the more he ignores the problem of scant opportunity for other blacks, the greater he obstructs the solution, is an academic consideration. One can't begrudge Remington freedom of artistic choice as a contentedly assimilated African American.
His latest choice, David Rabe's Streamers, despite the colorblind, multi-cultural "in-your-face" relevance proclaimed in PHT's mission statement, demonstrates the piercing perspective and dramatic fervor of a social-working dilettante. This message play, a largely uneventful essay on homophobia with a sidebar on racism, substitutes moralizing and existential contemplation for drama. Instead of being inhabited by credibly developed characters, the script is filled with representative types through which the author periodically delivers monologues of listless soul searching. Rabe harps on the specters of latent and closeted homosexuality, never exploring or even fully acknowledging the humanity of men who are attracted to men. All he perceives is a proclivity toward flailing hysteria and base rutting. Streamers' pivotal, sympathetic gay character fulfills the repugnant stereotype of heads indiscriminately bobbing above whatever laps that come along.
Set on a training base, Streamers opens with the expedient device of a scrawny, effeminate recruit who, unable to endure army life, has slit his wrist. After piquing the audience's attention, then racing offstage, he isn't heard from again. These first minutes amount to nothing more than a headline: HOMOPHOBIA IS HERE. Issues oriented text follows. And follows. The verbose Rabe, realizing something eventually must actually happen, sets hulking black stud Carlyle determinedly sniffing the sexual trail of sweet white Richie, who's perennially in the spasmodic throes of heat. Then there's more talk. Carlyle inexplicably goes mad and there's a knifing. Then there's still more talk, comparing oppressed homosexuality to a Vietnamese soldier trapped in a hole with a hand grenade beneath a steel lid on which a U.S. soldier sits as the Vietnamese soldier pleads to be let out. After that we go home.
Streamers unwittingly reflects a homophobic mindset. It reveals the likable Richie to be just what his comrades fear he is, a sexual slug. It doesn't, except for Carlyle leering at Richie's ass, touch on the fact that it takes two to tango. As long as Carlyle swaggers and subjugates in a testosterone tirade, nobody scrutinizes his orientation. Rabe doesn't do black images any good either. He equates bullying with race-authenticity and cowardice with being a black man who makes his peace with the company of white men. The lack of character depth even defuses the climax. There's no foreshadowing for when Carlyle loses it. We simply assume that an uneducated black private from the inner-city, faced with being shipped to the front lines, naturally reacts by taking leave of his senses. Since there's no evident reason why this man who lives behind the 8-ball suddenly can't cope with impending catastrophe, it must be that all black men in his situation get completely unglued. Streamers is superficial, poetic propaganda advancing the premise that homophobia hurts us all. As an aside it elicits sympathy for the downtrodden black devil of our mean streets. Yawn.
The production sustains this relentlessly yammering play by keeping the energy level high and character portrayals interesting. Terry Hempleman and Bruce Rowan take admirable advantage of Rabe's fleeting moments of economy and immediacy to create fascinatingly believable drunken drill sergeants. Brian Goranson radiates frailty as Richie, the self-loathing wretch who's ready to fellate at the drop of someone's (anyone's) drawers. Neither Dexter K. Tennie nor Remington, as the menacing Carlyle, are given much to do beyond playing good black guy and bad nigger. Each, however, acquits himself well as a viable presence--in so far as two-dimensional confines allow.
Rabe's attempted heroism--he was dealing with homosexuality in 1976, before doing so became politically correct--is commendable; quite imaginably, it was what spurred his critical success (Streamers won the New York Drama Critics' Circle's award for Best Play). He nonetheless would have improved considerably on the play by making his social statement the subtext, and letting genuine drama do the real work. He should have taken a page from Mart Crowley's book, The Boys in the Band, a superior story that deals much more powerfully with the same subject, deriving its vivid dialogue from its characters' behavior--not the author's need to send a message.