THE 31ST ANNUAL L.A. WEEKLY THEATER AWARDS
Understating the Obvious
The Subject Was Roses and The Ballad of Emmett Till
BY STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
No bed of roses: Sheen and Conroy on a sterile promontory: Photo by Craig Schwartz
Does it really need to be said? There's a commonplace in our reality-TV talk-show Culture of Confession that dancing around an unspoken truth with repartee is really the art of evasion. What's worse, it's effeminate, cowardly -- Noel Cowardly. It starts with the idea that "gutsy" behavior, at least in the American theater, starts with somebody rolling up the sleeves around the kitchen table, like Biff Loman does before confronting his pop in Death of a Salesman, mano a mano. What happens then, in the storytelling devices commonly employed in our theater, is a climactic scene of cathartic gut-spilling, exposing some long-suppressed family secret. Now that it's been aired, everyone feels better. At least that's the theory, that dates back to Sophocles' Oedipus the King. American plays that have settled into history books under the label "great works" have a leaning towards the ancient Greeks, from Eugene O'Neill to Arthur Miller to Tennessee Williams to August Wilson. There's a mano-a-mano scene in all of them.
What sets them on the mantle of greatness, I think, is the quality of the secret. The problem is that such a quality might change with time, a change over which the author has no control. (That King Oedipus should eventually discover that he inadvertently murdered his father and married his mom is a pretty good one, as secrets go. It has an enduring traction.) This would explain why a once great play like Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning The Subject Was Roses (which opened last weekend at the Mark Taper Forum) has become something between a good play and chestnut. (The Taper is staging it in its new season of American classics.)
When a young man (Brian Geraghty) recently home from serving in the
U.S.Army during WWII rolls up his sleeves (figuratively speaking) to
tell his emotionally blocked, up from the working-class father (Martin
Sheen), "I love you, dad," the awkwardness of the response, which Sheen
ensnares with the subtlest of facial ticks, is a revelation of a
generation gap that pierces the hitherto unspoken codes of conduct and
propriety. The moment is, well, momentous - if you're living in 1964.
More than 40 years later, however, we've seen that scene a thousand
times, along with the issue of how the only-child feels responsible for
the fractures in his parents' marriage. It's a theme that been been
ground out and down via a thousand TV movies, plays and episodes of Dr.
Phil. For these and other reasons, I found it just a little bit
embarrassing, but then again, I'm British. The British rarely talk about
anything head-on that's emotional. We just engage in deflection and wry
jokes with a sarcastic undertow. That's why we invented Noel Coward. So
take this as a foreigner's review.
Before arriving at this cathartic moment, however, there's so much
that's either unspoken or understated, which is why it really is a very
good play. Yet the primary joy is less the quality of the secret than
the quality of the performances.
Martin Sheen - an unknown actor in 1964 -- played the son in the
original Broadway production. From the subtlety, the power and the droll
humor of his performance here as John Cleary, a now middle-class
survivor of the Great Depression, it would seem that the play has
settled into his bones over the decades. John Cleary had the wit and
wherewithal to carve out a life for his now estranged wife, Nettie
(Frances Conroy) and their only surviving son, Timmy (Geraghty).
The coming-of-age- story rolls through the tug and pull of Timmy's
respective bonds with his mother and his father. Dad is great in public,
charismatic and powerful. His private life, however, is a sterile
promontory - a circumstance depicted less in explication than in the
revelatory body language of both Sheen and Conroy when they're together
on the stage.
As grand as Sheen's performance may be, Neil Pepe's meticulous and brisk
production hangs on Conroy's Nettie. She possesses the unique blend of
a piping voice and world-weary eyes (and the comportment to go with
them) that leaves the impression of a fading debutante who has accrued
her indisputable intelligence from years of experience, from hopes
devolved into habits, and from the growing realization, to quote Linda
from Death of a Salesman, that "life is a casting off."
There's an earnestness to Geraghty's boyish Timmy in a very appealing,
walking-on-eggshells interpretation of growing inner-strength.
The action unfolds on Walt Spangler's realistic period post-War set that
bifurcates the living room and the kitchen down the middle, the most
obvious of many divides that run though Gilroy's drama like fault-lines.
The Ballad of Emmett Till Photo by Ed Krieger
"I wanted people to understand that it wasn't all about Nazi
Southerners who should all be taken out and shot. I didn't want black
culture, a black story, to be totally dependent on white racism. That
bothers the hell out of me."
These are the words of Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till,
speaking in 2000 to the L.A.Weekly about a play she had written
about her son (The State of Mississippi Versus Emmett Till)
shortly before it was presented by Unity Players Ensemble at The
Complex. To that point, Mobley had turned down offers from other
playwrights and film companies to adapt the saga of her 14-year-boy, an
only son living with his mother and grandmother in Chicago, lured to
Mississippi for a working vacation in 1955 by an uncle. The precocious
Emmett Till had survived polio and acquired a telling and ultimately
lethal verbosity, possible as a consequence of his prevailing over a
Unspoken codes of conduct in Mississippi were quite different from those
in Chicago in 1955. If you had black skin, you didn't whistle at women
with white skin, as Emmett did to a shopkeeper. Days later, he was
apprehended in the night, dragged and beaten to his unspeakably brutal
death before being dumped in a river. His body was returned to Chicago
on the condition that his casket not be opened.
Mamie Till Mobley defied this condition, insisting that his casket be
open at a funeral attended by an estimated 50,000 mourners - thereby
exposing America's mutilated face of racism to the world. It was a flash
point for the nascent Civil Rights movement that, only months later,
inspired Rosa Parks to defy a local ordinance consigning "coloreds" to
the back of buses.
Ifa Bayeza's The Ballad of Emmett Till is a new choreopoem that
re-tells this now legendary family drama -- the family being America
herself. If The Subject Was Roses turns on the inexplicable
divide between a husband and a wife, The Ballad of Emmett Till
turns on the inexplicable divide between the North and the South.
If we've heard the story of a boy trying to tell his father that he
loves him, we've also heard the story of the 14-year-old black child
beaten to a pulp because he presumably dared to talk back to some white
thugs. This is why the focus of this play need not be about the ugly
secret, but it is anyway.
This production comes emotionally charged from the recent, brutal murder
of its original director, Bennett Bradley, on New Year's day, in his
own Los Angeles apartment, though the issues swirling around each
killing are quite different. Shirley Jo Finney took over directing
duties, and author Bayeza has done considerable work re-crafting her
play for the intimate Fountain Theater (where it opened last week), from
its original production at Chicago's considerably larger Goodman
Theatre in 2008.
A five member ensemble (Bernard Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Aedenrele
Ojo, Karen Malina White and Lorenz Arnell in the title role, though the
ensemble playing style allows each character's thoughts to be echoed by
the other actors) recites the narrative - and this really is a narrative
- with a kind of breathtaking vivacity, which never lets the event slip
from its riveting standard.
The tale of Emmett's youth in Chicago and camaraderie in Mississippi is
so infectious, with a kind of Under Milk Wood/A Prairie Home Companion
charm, that when the abduction inevitably unfolds, we have exactly the
kind of black and white story that Emmett's mother said she most feared.
The problem may be one of taste, but it ties directly back to the
compulsion to spill the guts theatrically. Finney's staging of the
abduction starts brilliantly, with a pair of headlights appearing behind
a translucent scrim. The production then devolves into a graphic,
extended and emotionally exploitative depiction of the fatal beating - a
scene the ancient Greek's would have avoided, showing merely the
aftermath of the violence. It was, in fact, the aftermath of the
violence that changed the world - the open casket. That said it all.
This production would be stronger, and give more credit to our
intelligence, if it followed the same example.
THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES | By FRANK D. GILROY | At the MARK TAPER
FORUM, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Downtown | Through March 21. (213) 628-2772.
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THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL | By IFA BAYEZA | Presented by THE
FOUNTAIN THEATRE, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood | Through April 3.