Some people don’t know when the party’s over. Theo, the central character in Keith Josef Adkins’ comedy drama Farewell, Miss Cotton, clings to a fantasy that his ghetto neighborhood can rebuff the encroachment of gentrification by preserving the local Cotton Club, a derelict nightspot that was once a fabled nexus for jazz musicians. Not only can Theo not wake up and smell the new Starbucks down the street, he cannot understand why his neighbors are clamoring to embrace the yuppification of their African-American community in Cincinnati’s West End. The play, receiving its L.A. premiere at the Black Dahlia Theater, tries to weigh the cost of progress against the price of nostalgia, with some very mixed results.
Ending a bitter 60-year exile from the West End, Theo (Hugh Dane) has moved into the home of Dezzie (Juanita Jennings), his lesbian daughter-in-law, after fire destroyed his apartment. His grandson, Robin (Arnell Powell), is an ex–crack dealer now obsessed with homeopathic healing, who hangs with a white wannabe rapper, David (Ryan Johnston). Everything about his new surroundings repulses Theo, who takes refuge in cyberspace, where a mysterious chatroom correspondent rekindles youthful memories of the Cotton Club. Theo’s e-mail pen pal directs him to dig up Dezzie’s floor, from which his deformed hand retrieves the trumpet he once blew in honor of the club’s 1946 beauty queen.
Soon Theo is united with his cyber correspondent, the Lady Day–garbed Imani-Lives (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), inside a suddenly resplendent Cotton Club. Attired in zoot suits supplied by Imani-Lives, Theo and a boyhood friend, A.W. (Jeris Lee Poindexter), plan a counterattack against the gentrification projects, which have been masterminded by a charismatic land developer named Aaron Graves, who plans to replace the Cotton Club with a Cheesecake Factory. And yet it becomes clear that Theo is one man who should never have come home.
“Sometimes I wake up,” Theo says, “and I don’t know where I am. Who. What I was before.” His remark is an elegy for both lost youth and a people in search of a new identity.
Farewell, Miss Cotton touches several familiar bases during Act 1. It laments the passing of a black urban culture presumably richer and more coherent than the violently fragmented one that has replaced it. It takes a cue from newspaper headlines about community movements organized to block colonizing projects like Wal-Mart stores. Finally, the story evolves from ghetto realism to a redemptive fable in which a man magically returns to the past — and a place of second chances.
But then comes Act 2. After an intriguing early buildup — during which Theo’s cyber muse, who is announced by an enigmatic chime whenever her e-mails arrive — opens the vault of Theo’s memories, we question how much of what we’re watching is real. Imani-Lives must be a mirage of Theo’s mind — but then A.W. shows up and begins speaking to her. The trio’s strategy of throwing rocks at Aaron Graves’ projects sounds suspiciously juvenile. Also, the club has been described as a rotting crack den, so why does it look so luminescent? Suddenly we’re watching a play very much at war with itself, and the redemptive fable becomes a tangle of motives and intentions — with an ending that only trivializes some of the themes Adkins has raised.
Farewell, Miss Cotton revisits territory first explored by August Wilson, although nowhere in Adkins’ play does one feel the crushing gravity that history and fate place upon Wilson’s soon-to-be displaced African-Americans. Another problem is that Adkins doesn’t give his secondary characters individual motives for even being on the set. They all share a reverence for the high-flying Mr. Graves, who seems to have promised all things to all people, but this only makes them costumes with lines of dialogue. On the Dahlia’s microscope slide of a stage, director Larry Biederman has assembled a workmanlike production whose biggest asset, besides the wonderful Dane and Poindexter, is Mike Durst’s stylish lighting design, whose cues faithfully bring out the story’s haunted moments, making this a production to be filed away under “E” for Earnest.
Theater of NOTE’s L.A. premiere of A Vast Wreck, on the other hand, should be filed under Don’t Try This at Home. Richard Caliban’s play takes the setting of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and uses it as a backdrop for a contemporary retelling of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Such a concept could produce an imaginative hybrid of ideas and genres, à la Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, which threaded lines from The Importance of Being Earnest with quotes and biographies of Bolsheviks and Dadaists. Or it could turn into Abbott and Costello Meet Ibsen.
It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize this will not be a Stoppard evening. Instead, we follow a very American and very modern Peer in the form of Peter Gibbs (Mark McClain Wilson) as he curses the small-town claustrophobia of Grover’s Corners and strikes out on his own in the world before returning home, as an old man, to the eternally faithful Solveig (Rebecca Rhae Larsen). In a production reminiscent of early Actors Gang efforts, Dara Weinberg directs a heavily made-up and garishly attired ensemble to tumble and cartwheel through a noisy, acrobatic interpretation that’s heavy on pantomimed sex and out-loud thinking. The strength of Weinberg’s production lies in the energy of her ensemble and Millie Chow’s simple but effective costuming, Ann Closs-Farley’s gargoylish makeup and Dan Jenkins’ haunted-house light plot.
Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, inspired by a Norwegian folk figure, was perhaps the first slacker, an indolent son of the industrial revolution whose romantic revolt against the machine and Scandinavian conformity led him to dream big and talk bigger, but whose moral anemia unerringly led him to the path of least resistance. He also matured, we might say, into a world-class coaster, sliding through life by doing as little original thinking as possible. As Peer wanders the planet, he fathers a bastard; almost marries a troll; becomes a slave trader and an arms dealer — all while Solveig, the one noble woman in his life, patiently awaits his return to Norway.
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Caliban’s angry high school grad Peter Gibbs (the son of Our Town’s Dr. Gibbs, played by Stephen Alan Carver) likewise goes forth seeking skirts and gold, but everyone around him is so unrelentingly misanthropic and mirthlessly vile that another title for the play might be Down With People. Paradoxically, for all its iconoclastic swagger, the play doesn’t challenge the audience to question any assumptions about itself. At one point Peter drifts into televangelism, which we are assumed to equate with the nadir of human activity. But why not decamp from that caricature and make Peter an evil version of someone most of us admire? (Say, a corrupt NGO aid worker or free-clinic volunteer?) Caliban also drains Ibsen’s story of its redemptive properties by making Peter’s mother, Aase (Gabby Sanalitro), a selfish harridan who wears a black PVC bra, and by changing Peer’s euthanasic lullaby at her deathbed into a throwaway moment of sputtering anger. Likewise, Peter’s late-life reunion with Solveig is skewed so that her litany of Peter’s good qualities does not reprieve him from the damnation threatened by the Button Molder (Dan Wingard).
In the end, however, it’s not to A Vast Wreck’s detriment that Ibsen’s play has been subverted, but that Caliban hasn’t found anything to put in the place of its poetic heart. Instead of a personal odyssey, this is merely a play that wanders down the shock corridor of teen violence, menstrual-blood art and nasty habits. What Caliban forgets is that in today’s world, the only thing that can shock is subtlety.?
FAREWELL, MISS COTTON | By KEITH JOSEF ADKINS | At the BLACK DAHLIA THEATER, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles | Through March 26 | (323) 525-0070
A VAST WRECK | By RICHARD CALIBAN | At THEATER OF NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood | Through March 18 | (323) 856-8611