One of my favorite theater memories is Carlyle Brown dancing to the Manhattans' "Shining Star" in his show The Fula from America. The song celebrates his arrival in Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone--and a metaphor to boot!), and though not the climax of his one-man show, the number marks a significant destination on his journey. His new work, Talking Masks, co-produced by Pillsbury House Theatre and Carlyle Brown & Company, has no such coup of theatricality. Nor does it need one.
The work consists of six short plays, all centered on the theme of identity--masks we wear, masks we are forced to wear. Also in common: All were written for Obie-winning actor Louise Smith. It's clear to see why Brown is so fond of Smith's work, which here is committed, unflinching, and deliberate. She plays the central character in each of the six plays, from a modern murdering mother to a 19th-century slave. The range can lend her performance a schizophrenic feel, but only because she's compelling each time. She may be gentle and forlorn in "The Human Voice," but then she is cunning and selfless in "Runaway Honeymoon," silent and painfully mysterious in "Mother Love." To add to the to-and-fro, the one-acts are linked by new violin music (played coyly by Molly Sue McDonald) from renowned jazzman Oliver Lake, the dissonance of which ties the plays to their common theme.
"The Human Voice," the evening's first playlet, was adapted by Brown from Jean Cocteau, and was the piece that first brought this playwright-actor team together. This character has been Smith's for a while, and she knows it. She's a mistress being dumped over the phone. The conversation is shown mostly one side at a time. Imploring and consoling her married lover (James A. Williams, who compels throughout with understated firmness and constancy), Smith keeps her pitch just shy of hysteria. Her character is hardly true enough to herself to indulge in the melodrama of romance (talking mask #1, for those keeping score). To watch the breakup is the kind of voyeurism you feel when friends are arguing bitterly during a party. You're embarrassed for them, but you don't dare leave the room: You have to watch.
"Runaway Honeymoon" is based on a true account of a couple who escaped slavery thanks to the wife's pale skin. They evade the suspicion of a debutante (Gwendolyn Schwinke) because the slave woman (Smith) is dressed as her husband's master. Williams does well to give his character a humanness that goes beyond a slave's eyes-to-the-ground posture. There are enough unabashed racial slurs and grand frills on Schwinke's dress to make of the play a minstrel show turned on its ear. So is identity a political, social issue? With that question lingering, "White Girl from the Projects" follows. It's pretty much what you'd expect, and if Smith doesn't quite convince us that she is from the projects, her performance of that "mask" is still enough for us to be empathetic to her racial roadblock. Schwinke is at her best in "The Diva Makes Her Entrance" as an insecure burlesque starlet. I wasn't sure if the divas' ending dance number was supposed to come across as parody, but at least the journey of Schwinke's starlet is clear: She moves from whining, backstage shame to limelit poise. Though the final and abstract scene, "The Talking Mask," recalls the mask work of novice performers, this is not the show's overall impression. The poetic language still rings true and fresh, and there will always be something haunting about the neutral mask moving in space. It's that fixation that drives home the evening: Humanity lingers when the human goes away.
Brown directs his work with subtlety. He has led his actors to faithful and full interpretations of his text, and more importantly, to unreserved performances. In his program notes, the playwright acknowledges women in his life for their strength and generosity. But in none of the six pieces is there anything elegiac; there are no odes to femininity, no Important Women bioplays. What the evening does have is sharp, economic writing (times six) coming from poetic mouths. That's the way he and Smith celebrate women. Shining stars indeed.