THE WORD "NIGGER" gets tossed around more than a dozen times in Silas Jones's Canned Goods, a new play receiving its world premiere at Penumbra Theatre, and every time it means something different. Depending on who is speaking and why, the most racist word in the English language can be a shorthand for "friend"; it can also be ironic, self-deprecating, candid, bewildering, sly, sad, and a host of other things that might not be pigeonholed as racism.
Such is the nature of stereotypes. Every time you think you understand one, the world changes, and the stereotypes change with it. In Canned Goods, an Asian American shopkeeper, Angel (played by Soon-Tek Oh), is retiring after 35 years of providing groceries for a predominately black, South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. Angel's son, Frank (Marcus Young), will be taking over the family business, but he's doing it in '90s style: He's buying it, then raising the prices. Frank, with an MBA from UCLA, is an unabashed racist. His opinion of blacks--the store's primary customers--is that they tend to be lazy, gun-toting deviants always in search of a handout.
Unfortunately, Canned Goods isn't a good enough play to make Frank's arrogance represent much more than what it is: the callow by-product of a first-rate education. Instead, Canned Goods creates a whole new roster of stereotypes about the youth of America--that they are hateful, alienated, violent, and ultimately unredeemable--and suggests, rather bluntly, that the world is going to hell and a handgun.
Soon-Tek Oh, a seasoned television actor (you'd know the guy's face instantly if you've ever seen an episode of Hawaii Five-O), delivers a charmingly quirky performance as Angel, but the battle lines between father and son are too starkly drawn; a barrage of unmistakable "messages" about racism and the disintegration of society in the 1990s obscures the otherwise promising dramatic possibilities of this father/son schism. It doesn't help that at the climactic moment the play devolves into an apocalyptic and ultimately tasteless hallucination of the New World Order.
Contrast the action in Canned Goods with the intellectually rigorous and prescient goings-on in Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window at Pillsbury House Theatre. For those who only know Hansberry's work through the novel and play A Raisin in the Sun (which means most of us), this play will come as both a surprise and a revelation. The main character is not black--he's a Jewish intellectual bohemian alcoholic--and the primary theme is not racism, but the social, intellectual, and emotional upheaval of the 1960s.
For Hansberry, stereotypes are illusions--stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. Most of them are lies--especially the ones revolutionaries tell themselves about the world they are trying to save. The story Sidney Brustein (played by Brian Goranson) tells himself is that he is the smartest, most conscientious and principled social activist in the world. Then, through Hansberry's crafty and intelligent plotting, Brustein proceeds to learn that almost everything he thinks he knows about himself and everyone around him is wrong.
Set in 1964, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window exposes the social undercurrents of the 1960s better than any play I've ever seen, and it does so with almost no references to Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, or any of the other overworked icons of the era. On a purely human level, this is a tough but compassionate exploration of what it means to grow up, to reconcile one's dreams and ambitions with the messy compromises of reality. Considering that Lorraine Hansberry died from cancer at the age of 34, the wisdom encapsulated in Brustein's busy bohemian apartment is astonishing.
Under the direction of Dwight Callaway and Ralph Remington, Pillsbury House Theatre delivers Hansberry's eloquent script extremely well with a solid production, the highlight of which is Brian Goranson's tremendous performance as the soon-to-be disillusioned Sidney Brustein. In numerous productions at Pillsbury House, Goranson has established himself as one of the best and most versatile actors in town. Goranson absorbs each role--the psychopathic assailant in Extremities, the gay roommate in Burn This--reinventing himself every time out, the way a great actor should. His Sidney Brustein is a tortured intellectual who can hold his liquor better than his tongue and who would rather save the world than his own life.
Canned Goods continues at Penumbra Theatre through March 29; call 224-3180.The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window continues at the Pillsbury House Theatre through April 18; call 825-0459.