Seeing and Believing
Mixed Blood Theatre
C. ROBERT JONES's play at the Mixed Blood Theatre is titled Colorblind, and there you have it. Sara Canfield is a blind white woman and Raymond Gordon is the young black man she hires to read aloud. Color-blind... Colorblind. Of course.
Jones is determined to pack a lifetime of conflict into each of these characters over a scant two hours. In the opening scene, Ray (Omari Shakir) arrives for an interview with Sara (Marquetta Senters). The job involves a few hours of newspaper reading each morning for good money. But he's late and she's rigid about such things. She sends him packing and he cries racism, slamming the door behind him. In "life" (or whatever one calls that thing that is not on stage), he would never walk through the door again. But contrivance has it that Ray carries an umbrella, which item he has left on Sara's couch where she has sat on it, thus spilling a cup of coffee. Enter Ray, take two. This time it's the start of a beautiful friendship.
But first signals must be crossed and misunderstandings misunderstood. Ray, we learn, served time for burglary, and Sara, formerly a renowned painter, lost her sight in a hit and run, and they both remain awfully testy after the fact. Spats and slights and overreaction. Prejudices both imagined and, less frequently, actual. Much recrimination. "Why do you throw everything back in my face?" Sara asks in the middle of the play; the question is never adequately answered. But there is always the umbrella trick to fall back on (the play must be set during New York's monsoon season) and Ray will return to that purpose, post-huff, another half-dozen times. Only the appealing performances of actors Shakir and Senters keep this material from falling flat. Eventually, a rickety bridge built from mutual marginalization--his blackness, her blindness--will span their differences. They both have a lot to learn.
Yet with few exceptions, the least effective way to talk about race onstage (or anything else for that matter) is to come right out and talk about it. Ray and Sara spend much of the play topping each other's pain: "I'm black--we've been on the defensive for 400 years." Only in college classrooms--and in the overactive imaginations of conservative newspaper columnists--do people habitually speak as representatives of a societal set or subset: as a Blank, I feel la-dee-da about dee-dee-dum. The implication here seems to be that if a person were not speaking subjectively as a Blank that particular day, she would naturally revert to the white-het-male vernacular. In theory-tongue: Theater that defines itself by opposition reifies that which it opposes.
Hence the irony. The harder artists try to corral the elusive beast of Identity (capital I) into a tidy performance pen, the less likely they are to capture the real thing. Instead we get impersonations of Identity--mounted trophy heads that mouth the right resentments while severed from all the other dramatic organs that breathe life into a character. Or we get the domesticated version--ideas about Identity diluted to didacticism perfect for petting-zoo tours favored by schools and grant panels. Colorblind succumbs to both these Identity-artifices by dwelling on the exposition of the already obvious.
Given such muddled motives, it may be no surprise that while playwright Jones and director Sharon Walton have reduced the dramatic formula to one simple set and two characters, they still have trouble getting it right. For the "most talented woman artist since Georgia O'Keefe," Sara is a lousy decorator. Her collection consists of a few unremarkable African statues, a replica Greek bust, and a framed Doisneau poster (fortunately not "The Kiss"). For a rich person, her shoddy stereo (cassette deck only) is stranger still. Nitpicking this, yes. But Ray's quirks of character demand more serious attention. He speaks fondly of It's a Wonderful Life. He digs Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart film festivals. One hesitates to pigeonhole his tastes by stereotype, but some anachronistic cultural referents strain credibility. Ray has seen the movie Ordinary People on television three times. That's two too many.
But then at the end of the second act, we learn that our man Ray "has been playing fast and loose with the truth." In a series of plot twists, each more ingenious than the last, Ray reveals the real status of his missing family while constructing one last fiction to assuage Sara's self-excoriation. But as with the disjointed film hit The Usual Suspects, the whole house of cards must come down for this plot to work. Ray is inscrutable (if apparently beneficent) by the curtain call, and the audience, bemused or baffled, is left playing 52-card pickup. CP
Colorblind runs indefinitely; call 338-6131 for tickets.
IT TAKES A gifted artist to revive a tried and true genre. When three such minds work toward that end, the result is an awesome synergy--at least in the case of Djola Bernard Branner, Brian Chapman-Evans and Daniel Alexander Jones. Each has set local stages afire with works in dance, theater, and points in between. Now, with Diva X: An Extravaganza, their first collaborative effort premiering this weekend at Patrick's Cabaret, they take on personal and cultural identity while performing in drag. Their characters, a collection of strong-minded and hard-bodied women ranging from blaxploitation heroines to musical icons, "will undoubtedly work some nerves in the room," promises Branner.
Which is what any diva worth her lip gloss should do. But there are divas and then there are Divaaahs. With drag queens now as American as apple pie (well, almost) and gender-guessing at gender-benders a familiar pastime, there's no denying the allure of a Miss (or Ms.) Thang, whoever she may be. What keeps drag queens current is their constant reinvention of reality: By assuming and transforming another's identity and making it their own, they create a forum for cultural reference. Branner, Chapman-Evans and Jones, for example, are exploring what they hope for and desire from African American culture, expanding Diva X beyond a drag show and into the realm of spiritual journey.
"Storytelling is crucial to African American culture," Branner explains, "which is something the gay culture is also doing through [drag]." Jones adds, "The concept of drag also takes on a component of ancestry. We are honoring women who opened doors, by taking on the vestiges of these people and by giving a space for their energy to be present, to break the time continuum."
The three artists share many goals, among them, according to Chapman-Evans, the creation of "an awareness of a black aesthetic" in the Twin Cities. As a choreographer and teacher, as well as a member of Sirius-B, a collective dedicated to the African American male voice, Chapman-Evans has been trying to find "an integration of movement with my own journeys in writing. In working with Sirius-B, and also in my personal work, I've been looking to craft a black image."
Like Chapman-Evans, Jones, who is currently a Jerome fellow at the Playwrights' Center, has gained an education in community building. He considers himself "a multidisciplinary artist, and it's hard to fit into a structure if you claim that. It was ultimately necessary to create a space in which to work, to form a community. Don't expect a community to come to you." For his part, Branner made a true "leap of faith" in leaving the critically acclaimed performance troupe Pomo Afro Homos; he moved here from San Francisco to marry Patrick Scully, proprietor of Patrick's Cabaret and to find a niche as a teacher, performer, and playwright.
Along with African American identity, the artists also reclaim gay identity. "We have to re-appropriate our own images," states Branner, explaining via his reaction to the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. "At first I saw cool images of queer black men, but then I thought 'They're taking my shit!'" Jones adds, "They take the pretty parts and leave the truth behind. It makes me think the same people who are laughing at the jokes inside the movie theater would be gay-bashing on the outside."
Based on real and fictional characters, the women these men create for Diva X are not likely to take any such guff. Cleopatra Jones, for example, "is the black American avenger for justice," says Branner, while Christy Love, Chapman-Evans proclaims, "was all that and a bag of potato chips. [Our show is about] about encapsulating images and exploding stereotypical images, like Christy explodes blaxploitation." Then there's JoMama Jones, "the quintessential singing star diva." In the end, these women, according to Branner, are "the '70s black sisters who were sitting there at their typewriters behind the black power brothers. Like Cleopatra Jones, they were saying, 'We are the ministry that kicks butt.'" In celebrating black and gay culture, Diva X has a message for everyone: "What is important is self-love for all that you are," says Chapman-Evans. "Without apology, without qualification," chimes in Branner. Which also entails drawing upon oneself as a resource, according to Jones. Paraphrasing Toni Morrison, he says, "I want to write the books I need to read--if it's not out there, then I'm going to put it out there." CP
Diva X will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Patrick's Cabaret, 506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis; call 222-2738 for tickets ($7 advance/$9 at the door).
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