Short Attention Span Theater
In 2004, Mixed Blood Theatre enjoyed its greatest critical success in years with a collection of 10 short shows titled Bill of W(Rights)--a wordplay on the civil liberties themes that made up the show and the august collection of nine writers who penned it. Now, Mixed Blood is returning to that approach with Point of Revue. This time the theater has squeezed in 15 original vignettes by African American playwrights, both local and national. What could be next: Thirty scripts in thirty minutes?
Thomas W. Jones directs a nine-person cast, identified as "vaudevillians" in the production notes. It's an apt description given the turn-on-a-dime changes required in a piece with a wide range of tones and ambitions. Lynn Nottage's "After Party," for instance, is a slightly longwinded exposition by a record producer's wife (Austene Van) about her lack of affection for her disabled child. Van sells it with a complicated brittleness, and provides considerable glam appeal. Another conventional short is David Barr III's funny "Keepin' It Real," which features a couple of sportswriters (Warren C. Bowles and Joe Minjares) and their hypocritical public opinions toward walking chem lab Barry Bonds.
Elsewhere the entire ensemble tackles the script, as in Robert O'Hara's "Down Low," a comic song about a sports star (Ansa Akyea) and a pastor (Bowles) sharing a clandestine romance. The tune sails along on a mild breeze of repression and potential scandal until the appearance of Xavier Rice, who crows hilariously about how he's "carryin' it up high"--i.e., being openly gay and quite thrilled about it.
Among local writers, Syl Jones pens a so-so scenario in which a white ventriloquist's dummy spews psychic crap to Bowles. And Carlyle Brown contributes a restless vignette about American soldiers in Iraq that marches predictably toward its grim conclusion. (Everyone's inner bigot, the sketch posits, wants a chance to come out). Dwight Hobbes's brisk and tart "Dues," in which a theater critic (Akyea) gets fired after turning in a compromised review, feels like a snippet from a longer and potentially satisfying drama.
Abetting the show's energetic pace are J.D. Steele's compositions and Sanford Moore's musical direction and live keyboard playing. The evening starts and ends with songs that blend R&B, jazz, and hip hop, and the tunes further punctuate the scene changes, helping to lend the evening a sense of unity and cohesion.
Which is not to say that there are not missteps along the way. Don Cheadle's "A Quiet Emergency," a video and spoken-word piece about suffering in Africa, comes across as noble but off-point. Another scene, in which Van and Amy Matthews trade sexy moves before a dance tryout, is goofily diverting. Kia Corthron's follow-up with that duo, a semi-affectionate send-up of Condi Rice (Tonia Jackson), comes close to squandering the considerable good will banked away in the previous 90 minutes.
Still, the balance here remains heartily on the side of the good stuff. The spectacle of Van and Matthews grinding pointlessly behind Condi to sell American policy (I bought the dancing if not the scene) followed something far more resonant: Jevetta Steele's stealthily effective "The Mother's Board." Thomasina Petrus, an appealing presence throughout the night, delivers this monologue about growing up in the church with quiet humor and soul--a sense of belief that provides an unexpectedly deep moment of connection between the performer and her audience.
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