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Colorblind and I'm Not Rappaport, Two Plays Dealing With Race Relations

Wallace Demarria and Taja V. Simpson in Colorblind
Wallace Demarria and Taja V. Simpson in Colorblind
PHOTO BY TAMMY BAGHDASSARIAN

Wallace Demarria bills himself as executive producer, writer, director and star of his play Colorblind, playing through the weekend at Meta Theatre. Such multiple, key credits landing on one person is generally the warning sign of a vanity production, stemming from the insatiable appetite of a runaway ego, or of a person doggedly determined to fulfill a vision in exactly the way he envisions it, or both. Even if the singularity of Demarria's vision is at work here, it's not necessarily in the best interests of his production.

At a directors symposium at the Humana Festival of the Actors Theatre of Louisville last month, three directors formed a groundswell of agreement on how healthy it is to have conflict and tension in the rehearsal hall, how the dialectic of writers standing up for themselves against the contrary impulses of their directors and actors forges the best results. But in Demarria's show, nobody's arguing with the director, or the writer, or the producer, or the lead, because all those people are the same guy.

Perhaps one day, Demarria's play will have the benefit of collaboration and combat in rehearsal when he yields some of his production's executive positions to other people. I hope so, because his play is good enough to justify the effort.

A black separatist minister, Clinton Muhammad (played by Demarria), runs an organization called MEM (Movement for the Empowerment of Minorities). Intellectually and spiritually, he's a descendant of pan-African leaders Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Chief Elder Osiris, blaming the continual and now escalating financial divide between whites and blacks on the legacy of American slavery, and its deep reach into the psyches and souls of American blacks.

Muhammad gives highly charged, charismatic speeches calling for self-reliance and intradependence in the black community. As he's speaking at his podium, his supporters sit behind him, nodding sagely and applauding at his nuggets of insight and wisdom. This probably is not the best way to employ exposition, or to establish a character's principles. After all, a speech is largely posturing. It may reveal what he thinks he believes but not necessarily the real deal.

Into his leadership circle, Muhammad has recruited a senior community member, Brother Marcus Reed (Mark Ridley), and a young gang member straining to control his temper, Brother Rasheed (Reggie Myles) — for whom Muhammad is mentor and foster father. When the writer Demarria exposes Muhammad's feet of clay, the power struggle within this trinity turns Shakespearean, and this is where the play is at its best.

MEM is getting bad press from white TV host Ross Atkins (Marc McHone), whose conservative arguments opposing Muhammad's separatism are on the cusp of being a legitimate counter-argument, until Atkins previews next week's host, Rush Limbaugh, which results in a burst of mocking laughter from the audience. Atkins, and McHone's earnest portrayal of him, are too intriguing for the character to be such a straw man.

Yet there's a terrific relationship between Muhammad and his years-long supporter and executive secretary, Janet Smith (Taja V. Simpson). She's a whip-smart Harvard grad who used to date white guys. And though she reveres him, and wouldn't mind some out-of-the-office action, Muhammad won't touch her sexually. Either all of his energy is devoted to his cause, or he is indeed, as she accuses him of being, a coward — ace on abstract principles but a dolt when it comes to human intimacy.

What's even more scintillating is the image of a man who in one scene recoils in disgust that she had sex with a white guy — all that creepy pink flesh.

This is just one brush stroke in Demarria's perverse, complex and deeply provocative portrait of his central character.

The play will further expose his revulsion when he's injured in a bomb blast and temporarily blinded. With gauze patches over his eyes, he falls for a woman (Aria London) whom he presumes is black, because she never tells him anything different. That she's white seems to her irrelevant to the attraction the pair feels. She grew up in Inglewood, Chicago. She speaks black. She knows black. But she's not, and he can't see it.

Muhammad's eventual demonstration of reverse bigotry hasn't been seen since Thomas B. Gibbons' terrific 2002 play Bee-luther-hatchee, about a writer whose prize for an African-American biography is rescinded when the awarding organization learns that the author is white.

The ensemble at Meta (which includes Kevin Blunt and Kristopher Lencowski) is well cast and turns in nicely modulated performances under Demarria's staging. But there are too many stretches of pedantry and smidgens of melodrama, all of which could be easily contained and repaired if Demarria weren't carrying all the weight of his invention on his own shoulders. His core ideas, however, are first-rate.

Old Jewish Nat (Jack Axelrod) struggles to find his spectacles, puts them on and looks closely at old Midge (Carl Crudup) by the park bench where they've been meeting for weeks and annoying each other. Uh huh! Nat expresses mocking surprise that Midge really is black, just as he said — as though Nat had never noticed, as though he'd been colorblind. He's kidding, as is playwright Herb Gardner through much of his now-quaint, Tony Award–winning 1985 comedy I'm Not Rappaport, being presented by West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse.

Contrasted against Colorblind, you can tell Rappaport was written by a white guy.

Though the comedy is actually about aging, not race, the racial dynamic is the inverse of Demarria's. Colorblind's black characters are fundamentally courageous. They may be confused but they stand behind what they believe, and their beliefs present a direct challenge to the way the world is run.

In Gardner's play, the black character is acquiescent and finds Nat's stridency an annoying imposition. The play consists largely of a series of meetings between Nat and Midge on and around a bench in Central Park.

Nat, an old Commie and Yiddish-speaking dynamo, is in many ways akin to Muhammad — the difference being that Nat deliberately makes up crap in order to get what he wants. Among the duo's crises — they find themselves confronted by a mugger (Andy Scott Harris) and in the middle of a drug deal gone bad — is the termination of 83-year-old Midge's employment as supervisor at a nearby co-op.

Midge is content to accept a 10-week severance package and a union pension, as though he's done OK by The Man. Not so Nat, who intervenes by impersonating a lawyer and threatening the building manager (Joe Langer) on the reluctant Midge's behalf.

But the protagonist here is neither Midge nor Nat nor the committee determining Midge's future. The protagonist is time itself, and the play primarily concerns our capacities to defy it — for a time — with a ruse or a bluff or even a con. It's a bit like a play by Chekhov, but one where all the subtext gets spelled out or joked away.

Howard Teichman's staging is perfectly adequate, as played out on set designer Kurtis Bedford's graffiti-pocked park-bridge set. On the performance I attended, there was a missing spark, so that the stream of quips felt only slightly amusing, peppered with mild pathos. Perhaps because of the sluggish pacing, it became all a little too obvious, even predictable, when Nat had to face down the plans of his own daughter (Maria Spassoff) for her cantankerous dad.

The play, like its central characters, was showing its age.

COLORBLIND | By Wallace Demarria | Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave. | Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through May 5 | (323) 852-6963 | anthonymeindl.com/theatres.htm

I'M NOT RAPPAPORT | By Herb Gardner | Presented by West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 23 | (323) 860-6620 | wcjt.org

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