Us Vs. Us

Pitting the black middle class against its poorer neighbors; matching young lovers with their geriatric selves

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

The lean woman who stalks the stage at the Illusion Theater bears two prominent features--a snarl and a laptop computer. Twentysomething Jade, as played by Trudy Monette, seems an embodiment of middle-class African-American self-loathing: Her only connection to the community where she lives is her determination to leave it behind. In her designer business attire and corporate-chic hair weave, she has managed to erase a kind of street vituperativeness from every part of her body but her mouth, which spews a stream of casual dismissals. Jade's dialogue is appalling, if hilariously pointed. Asked about Atlanta, where she once considered settling, she snarls, "You got a lot of wannabe bourgies Negroes from D.C. running around there. It's like a New Jack Underground Railroad. Please, I was not going to get on that bus."

They were so much older then, they're younger than that now: David Manis and Sally Wingert in Lake Hollywood
They were so much older then, they're younger than that now: David Manis and Sally Wingert in Lake Hollywood

Jade is the spinning malice at the center of Minneapolis-based playwright Tonda S. Clarke's newest play, No Distance Between Us--wound up like some mechanical yapping dog and set loose on the stage. She easily commands the small space, which consists of little more than a bus bench and a filthy sidewalk, and likewise dominates the few characters that inhabit this realm, bullying them with her torrent of denunciation. It is not enough for Jade simply to sneer at the black community--she must do so in protracted sentences of mounting loathing. Describing her experiences in Chicago's South Side, for example, Jade snaps, "These South Side Negroes still have wet cotton on their hands! Girl, gold teeth and jheri curls and don't even get me started on their Korean wig-shop Gucci knockoffs."

Most of Jade's bile lands squarely atop Sierra, a fractured poetic soul who, as played by Thomasina Taylor, speaks entirely in halting, uncertain sentences. Eager for friendship, Sierra stutters out her secrets (homelessness, manic-depression) to Jade and shrugs off the noxious dismissals that come in return. Eventually, as she must, Sierra ends up the subject of Jade's acrimony, against which she is defenseless.

Jade reserves her cruelest comments for the army of addicts and vagrants who fill the streets of her neighborhood, a nightmarish vision of poverty and hopelessness. The underclass is represented here by the character Cobalt, who storms the stage in a muscular performance by Aimee K. Bryant. Cobalt twitches her hands in her own version of the Thorazine shuffle, cackling madly and riffing on variations of crack-inspired braggadocio. Too defeated to be bullied, Cobalt responds to Jade with immediate violence.

Despite the title of the play, the distance between Jade and Cobalt is vast: Not only do they not seem to be from the same race or neighborhood, they hardly seem to be from the same planet. These two women share nothing but a tasteless pity for Sierra, whose fragile psyche erodes as they watch. No Distance Between Us presents class as an insurmountable barrier. The play is not a prettified version of destitution, and the poor are not ennobled by their experience. Rather, they are damaged and driven mad by their circumstances. Clarke insists on thrusting her characters' pain right into her audience's lap, revealing not just their abject circumstances, but the terrible fallout indigence has produced. Cobalt's misery is lurid and hideous, based in rape and murder. She exposes her story and then points a quavering hand at Sierra, declaring, "You gots to be much woman to roll like we do!" But if these women are rolling, it is downhill, a trajectory that is alternately ignored and despised by the black middle class of the play.

Clarke's rage at this is clear in her writing, as is her seeming despair. Jade exits the play somewhat humbled by her experiences, but it hardly seems to matter: This play is too angry at the middle class to give much importance to tragedy's capacity for humanizing the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Classism is the bitter pill of No Distance Between Us, and Clarke demands we swallow it. Because she has engaged us with sharply drawn characters, we take our dose of medicine, and its ashes remain in our mouths long after the play has ended.

 

The oeuvre of celebrated playwright John Guare was the subject of an entire season at New York's august Signature Theatre Company last year, an honor that has previously been reserved for the likes of Sam Shepard and Arthur Miller. Appropriate to the theater's retrospective sensibility, Guare closed the season with a play, Lake Hollywood, that is simultaneously his newest and one of his oldest.

Guare based the script, now playing at the Guthrie Lab, on a 35-year-old one-act. Notoriously obsessive as a rewriter, he could not resist retooling the piece, punching it up with contemporary details and adding a sprawling first act that chronicles a wild afternoon at a New England lake. This new act is a delight, as Guare indulges in all manner of theatrical eccentricities. Blanketed in the smoke of a burning Jehovah's Witness encampment, Guare's assortment of motley characters giggle like fiends and dash about the set, pausing only long to babble bizarre monologues directly at the audience. An ancient German vamp, played by the abundantly droll Elizabeth Norment, begs for the audience's sympathy. "After all, we're all human here," she declares before scowling at a nearby audience member. "Except you." She jabs her finger at another. "And you."

This act plays like a deranged Thirties melodrama, with two noble but flawed lovers (acted with Cowardly Lion bluster by David Manis and with magnificent restraint by Sally Wingert) finding each other amid a storm of family betrayals. Unfortunately, the second act--drawn from Guare's 35-year-old script--plays out as an unsatisfying coda to the events at the lake. Guare has moved the story ahead 50 years, and his noble lovers have grown very old as a result, but the script has all the earnestness and clunkiness that comes with the work of a very young playwright. The act is pedestrian, in a literal sense: Guare's old lovers walk the stage, ostensibly on the way to a hospital where one will die. Along the way they reveal long-hidden secrets and address long-buried pains.

The characters and dialogue here creak like antiques, defying the odder and richer flair for mischief that Guare put into his new first act. The lovers prattle endlessly about the agonies of aging, summed up in awkward statements like "Do you know what I miss most about growing old?" The question hangs in the air, calling to mind the wildness of their youthful adventures at the lake. Like its characters, the second act groans with its age: Though Guare has gotten better with the years, the hoary core of this script has not.

 

Correction published 2/23/2000:
Owing to a reporting error, this story misidentified the actress who plays Sierra in Illusion Theater's production of No Distance Between Us. The actress's name is Thomasina Taylor. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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