Automatic for the People

Floating Molly Brown at the Dorothy Day Center; staging Ntozake Shange in the age of the poetry slam

Before Ten Thousand Things' performance of The Unsinkable Molly Brown last Thursday afternoon, a throng of quiet, wet people waited in the rain for handouts from the back of a Rainbow Foods van. They stood in front of the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, and behind them, high above on a hill, the copper dome of the cathedral shimmered in the fading daylight. Inside the center, a larger throng of noisier, drier people sat in a circle of metal chairs, waiting for a show to begin. Eventually a woman walked into the circled crowd. "Good afternoon," she said. "We're Ten Thousand Things, and we're here to do a musical for you." Then they did just that.

The music began with an elephantlike blast from a trombone. In a few seconds, the noise swelled into a cacophonous symphony: Drums banged, guitars twanged, and horns wailed. A little girl in a ragged dress darted around in the center of the chaos. Then she was gone, and a taller girl in a ragged dress came bounding into the circle, snarling gleefully and wrestling with two equally ragged boys. This was Molly Tobin (Larissa Kokernot), the unsinkable, irrepressible ragamuffin who would grow up to become a wealthy dowager, a survivor of the Titanic, and an American folk hero. For now, however, she was a pretty, young spitfire living in the hardscrabble mining town of Leadville, Colorado. "I might give out, but I won't give in," she roared as the boys pushed and pinched her. "I hate the word down, but I love the word up. Up means hope for some place cleaner, shinier."

In the fairy-tale America of Molly Brown, knowing that up means someplace better is enough to get there. So it was that in a few minutes, the scrappy heroine found true love with a miner named Johnny Brown (Ron Menzel) and fell ass-backwards into a fortune. There was a sweet, funny barbershop serenade by Johnny and his grizzled mining comrades (Matt Sciple, Grant Richey, and Dale Pfeilsticker), and by the time Molly and her goodhearted beau exchanged their first kiss, the audience was won over. The men in worn-out fatigues and mesh baseball caps who had been lingering at the edge of the room slipped closer to the stage. The tired-looking young women with babies in their arms smiled as Molly and Johnny made fools of Denver society and the insufferable snob, Mrs. McGlone (Carolyn Pool). Smiles turned to giggling as Molly hobnobbed with the assorted counts and countesses of Europe. And giggling turned to a swell of laughter as the fabulous soiree thrown by Molly to celebrate her ascension into the social elite devolved into a drunken brawl. The Dorothy Day Center, where people habitually deal with the nation's painfully real inequalities, was captivated by a rags-to-riches fairy tale. It was a Ten Thousand Things moment.

She's the queen of the world: Larissa Kokernot as the Unsinkable Molly Brown
She's the queen of the world: Larissa Kokernot as the Unsinkable Molly Brown

A perennial dinner-theater favorite like Molly Brown might seem an odd choice for a rough-and-ready troupe that often plays to captive audiences in prisons around the state. It is, in the tradition of Broadway musicals, a story of optimism and ambition, defiantly oblivious to the realities of class immobility. Yet Ten Thousand Things doesn't press issues or sell messages. As director Michelle Hensley says before every performance, the company is dedicated to bringing good theater to those who would otherwise not have access to it (though their matching of play to venue carries political undertones). Their performances are antithetical to the staid world of professional theater: full of mistakes, collapsing scenery, and boisterous audience reactions.

Accordingly, their Molly Brown is not so much about singing, acting, or scenery as it is about the laughter Matt Sciple elicits as a besotted old Irishman, or the look on a young woman's face as Jodi Kellogg prances across the stage wearing a ridiculous gold headdress shaped like a partridge. Indeed, the best moment of last Thursday's play at the Dorothy Day Center was a mishap. A set piece consisting of a tiny armoire perched atop a pole fell over, spilling flowers across the stage. At once, a little girl darted out of the audience and in between the actors to gather up the flowers. An old man with lines of worry and sadness etched into his face buckled over laughing. It was another Ten Thousand Things moment.

 

While Ten Thousand Things brings theater to the people, Penumbra Theatre's staging of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf demands that an audience meet it more than halfway. This ponderously titled piece is less a play than a spoken-word poem garnished with some choreography and a bit of singing. Although this was revolutionary stuff when it premiered in 1976, with the proliferation of the poetry slam it now seems a bit dated.

As envisioned by director Kym Moore, Shange's poem is a sort of ritualized celebration of "the dark phrases of womanhood," full of gyrating and wailing but devoid, for the most part, of narrative. The poet's mouthpiece is a group of seven women who deliver fragmentary bits of the whole, sometimes singing, sometimes preaching. Although the Sybils function as a single voice, they also emerge individually to tell stories. In "abortion cycle #1," Sharon Cage manages to generate pathos while sitting in what looks to be a large overturned teacup. Later, in what is easily the strongest piece of the poem, Sun Mee Chomet lands an emotional punch while telling the story of her Vietnam vet boyfriend and the murder of her children. It's not pretty stuff, and it may not be revolutionary any more, but the message of Shange's anthem is still clear: Being a girl means more than not being a boy, and being colored means more than not being white.

 

The Unsinkable Molly Brown has public performances May 29-31 at the Playwrights' Center; (612) 724-4494. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf runs through June 27 at Penumbra Theatre; (651) 224-3180.

 
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