There really aren’t many tenets that can be applied universally in the theater. Critics often fall down dramaturgical manholes when they apply dicta that are irrelevant to the genre of the play they’re reviewing. For example: A protagonist must be likable in order to keep our interest — like Richard III? Or, one Aristotelian favorite: The rising action must lead to the central character’s changing and learning something. (That’s a big one in screenwriting manuals.) But you might as well throw every play written by Chekhov, Beckett and all the Absurdists right out the window.
So I hope it isn’t immodest to say that after about 20-plus years of reviewing plays, I think I’ve finally stumbled onto a one-size-fits-all principle of the theater. And it happened this weekend after seeing two somewhat related, sort-of-enjoyable plays in Hollywood, each suffering slightly, as though from buckshot wounds: The Women of Brewster Place, a musical by Tim Acito based on Gloria Naylor’s short stories, now midrun at the Celebration Theatre; and a one-woman autobiographical stand-up (and change costume) routine written and performed by Selene Luna, Born to Be Alive, which just opened at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre.
The dictum goes like this: What you do is far more important than what’s been done to you. That’s also a life lesson, but I’m not really talking about that. This is applicable to characters on the stage, whose viability depends on sustaining our interest. No, they don’t need to be sympathetic, or empathetic, or have any redeeming qualities. But what makes us watch them is their ability — or the ability of the scribe who conceived them — to define themselves by their actions rather than by their circumstances.
Both productions being reviewed have roots in the theater of identity politics, which roared across America and Europe for about a decade, beginning in the 1980s. It attempted to sensitize audiences to the plights of groups who weren’t, and still aren’t, getting a fair shake, for reasons having to do with their ethnicity, race, physical handicap or sexual orientation, or any number of circumstances largely beyond their control.
It was around this time that the word inclusive became part of the lexicon, a word so woefully and generically overused it has been rendered meaningless. It was through tales of woe and neglect, if not brutality, followed by a character’s determination to overcome, that the theater became an instrument of social justice and “inclusion” — not necessarily a bad idea but a source of some really bad theater — from Highways to BAM, the wellspring for an entire generation of pep rallies trying to pass for an art form. As though desire were a substitute for action.
A prior generation of victim dramas, dependent on the abuse and/or neglect of, say, alcoholic parents upon their children, or protagonists suffering from some debilitating or fatal disease, yielded to stories in which the abuse and/or neglect and/or disease was imposed on groups rather than individuals. And very personal, autobiographical performance artworks tried to find their traction from their appeal to groups of what Dostoyevsky called “the injured and insulted.”
But a primary rule of quality and long-term engagement in the theater is that characters are innately more dramatic, complex and offer more probing life lessons when defined more by their actions than by their circumstances. It’s a principle that applies even to the Absurdists: from Beckett and Ionesco to Max Frisch’s The Arsonists (currently at the Odyssey Theatre); these are playwrights whose larger themes have everything to do with the circumstances in which not only the plays’ characters flail but we as audiences do as well. Yet their drama comes from individual attempts at defiance, even if those acts are futile. The quality of the defiance determines the quality of the drama. The stage settings for drama concerns the circumstances in which we find ourselves; the drama itself, and its reason for being, is less who we are than what we do. Just as in life.
The Women of Brewster Place — the basis for a TV series in the 1980s, also developed from Naylor’s stories — unfolds in a 1970s housing project under threat of demolition by a developer. The musical is about community in general, and African-American women in particular.
Act 1 begins tidily enough: We meet Mattie (nicely played by Kim Yarbrough), the janitor with a dark secret that will come pouring out in Act 2. Then there’s Mattie’s childhood friend, sassy Etta Mae (Cherida Best), who, for reasons of her own edification, crawls into shaded limos with the local preacher for some new lessons in old-time religion. She’s also the object of scorn among Brewster Place’s gossipy matrons. It is the ’70s, Gerald Ford is president (we learn this from radio broadcasts that bookend each act), and revolution is on a few people’s minds. (Those were the days.) Sporting an Afro like a halo, Kiswane Browne (Kelly M. Jenrette) has just arrived from the moneyed heights and aches to be free of her parents’ assistance and to do something useful in the world. Among the best scenes is a visit to Kiswane by her well-heeled mother (Lisa Tharps). It’s not just Naila Aladdin Sanders’ personality-defining costumes that give Tharps such material to work with — the matronly skirt and hat, heels and matching bag, the clinging earrings that hang on to every word sputtered from Mom’s sneering lips an inch or so away. Among the R&B, ballad and gospel ditties is Mrs. Browne’s “Then Know This (Daughter of Mine)” sung by Tharps from a place deep inside her bones. It comes accompanied with tiny drops of spittle. This is more than a performance, it’s a conjuring of spirits. By the end of the Act 1, a child has fallen down a faulty elevator shaft. In Naylor’s story, it’s a kind of random tragedy, based on a life in which landlords can’t bother with deferred maintenance. In Acito’s musical, however, it’s a different kind of plunge, an inversion of deux ex machina and every bit as arbitrary.
Act 2 is filled with yet more pointless tragedy, inflicted upon a lesbian couple (Christine Horn and Julanne Chidi Hill), struggling to define their place in the swirl of homophobia, and we’ve gone from a kind of social-musical adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths to a Laramie Project–ish melodrama about gay identity, with characters who hadn’t even bothered to make an appearance until Act 2. The musical tries to balance the circumstances surrounding its characters’ lives with their defiance, in a world ultimately defined by social and sexual circumstances. For me, Act 2 went the way of that offstage child plunging down the elevator shaft.
Michael Matthews’ otherwise robust staging includes canned accompaniment, adding this to a list of karaoke musicals in L.A. (USS Pinafore and Life Could Be a Dream). Yes, it’s expensive to pay a live combo, but we’re talking about musicals with actors who can actually sing, dance and deserve better. Can a cue please be taken from Sacred Fools Theatre, which uses live musicians for its musicals? If a theater can’t afford the musicians, perhaps they should wait until it can.
“Short person”/comic Selene Luna (she stands 4 feet, in heels) performs a stand-up routine that’s part satire, part autobiography and history of vaudeville, much of it lifted from acts she’s done before. In attitude, she’s a walking ball of comic defiance, which is exactly what stand-up is supposed to be, and she affiliates herself with the gay community because of its acceptance of outcasts.
She has played in big houses, and this one isn’t, yet her style feels as mannered, as though it were. Or perhaps it was opening-night jitters. You can find some of these same bits on YouTube, where, oddly, her poise and timing work much more effectively than in the show I saw. Here, she has a bizillion costume changes, which were sabotaging her concentration. She’s obviously a talent; it’s recorded in cyberspace, and I’m willing to gamble that she’ll settle in to a level of comfort.
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That aside, it’s one of those “I know I’m odd, but I will survive” shows. The quality of the drama lies in the quality of the defiance. Luna has little interest in playing the victim; she’d rather crack jokes and perform a soft-core strip-tease. From such a little person, that’s what they used to call subversive, which she couches in the attitudes of gay humor — good naturedly calling her audiences “bitches,” for example. As autobiographical stand-up goes, it’s painted somewhat by the numbers, a little bit brave but not quite bravura.
Derick LaSalla directs.
THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE | MUSIC AND LYRICS BY TIM ACITO | At the CELEBRATION THEATRE, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 27 | (323) 957-1884.
BORN TO BE ALIVE | WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY SELENE LUNA | L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, Davidson/Valentini Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through June 27 | (323) 860-7302.