The Blind Leading the Blues

The best moments in Oliver Mayer‘s Ragged Time are the vitriolic confrontations between Blind Gary and Blind Ross, two impoverished blues singers who are both black and blind, and who separately roam the South on the cusp of the new 20th century. The year is 1898, but although America stands before a wide blue horizon of possibilities, the pair slug it out in verbal bum fights steeped in bitter antebellum memories and their own former master-slave relationship -- years ago, the younger Gary (L. Kenneth Richardson) was Ross’ (Jeris Lee Pointdexter) sighted guide until a brick to the head threw him into darkness.

These scenes are toughly poetic, and the acting is poetically tough. Richardson‘s Gary is onstage far more often than Ross and he skillfully wheels the play’s scenes from pathos to comedy through rueful observations and pornographic banter.

This premiere production, directed by Matt Shakman at the Black Dahlia Theater, presents a symbolic and broadly comic diorama of a country on the verge of imperial destiny and musical upheaval. A scrappy, patriotic Jew (Tony Abatemarco) sells newspapers in Charleston, South Carolina, and falls for a mulatto prostitute (Chane‘t Johnson), just after she’s sold a Mexican orphan named Ignacio (Tina Sanchez) to Gary to be his “eyes.” Gary soon treats the boy with the same benign cruelty with which Pozzo treated Lucky in Waiting for Godot. In fact, Ignacio is the human property everyone fights over, including two characters from contemporary funny pages, played by Jennifer Morrison and Steven Klein, who occasionally spring to life from their two-dimensional world.

Unfortunately, Ragged Time isn‘t the story of Gary and Ross, but a fable about American prejudice and opportunity myths as viewed from 100 years of hindsight. Before long we find ourselves staring narcissistically into a mirror of metaphors: 1898 substitutes for more or less our own millennial times; the looming war with Spain might look like America’s pending obliteration of Iraq; Ignacio‘s androgynous Latino voice could be . . . well, the voice of Latino androgyny. The play’s denouement, in which everyone is reconciled and enlightened, is about as obvious as a WPA mural, but without the visceral power.

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