With the possible exception of the 10-minute intermission, nothing is as disingenuous in American theater today as the “political play.” I could probably spend the rest of my life speculating on the reasons for this, but in the end we shouldn’t be surprised by this state of affairs, given the complacency of the art form. When critics speak of “socially challenging theater,” we usually mean challenging for other people — that is to say, nothing about the work at hand questions the comfortable assumptions about the world held by the liberal arts community to which most of us belong. I‘m not merely lamenting here the absence of contrarian politics on the stage, for even if a slew of unlikely plays sympathetic to, say, capital punishment or Holocaust revisionism were to somehow get produced, it wouldn’t change the basic nature of contemporary political theater. We would simply have a few new plays that most people in the theater community would either boycott or picket. More important, these plays would most likely follow the lead of their left-wing counterparts by flattering the sympathies of their presumed audiences, ignorant of the fact that the truly effective political play is one that does the opposite by implicating its audience in its indictment of society.
It has been 37 years since The Slave, Amiri Baraka‘s play about a racial apocalypse, premiered off-Broadway, yet its visceral rejection of white liberalism makes it as explosive today as then. With The Slave, Baraka (then writing as LeRoi Jones) slammed the door on most of the people in his audience, and the echo can still be heard today.
Baraka’s rage supplied his play with much of its force, but so did its subject matter, for back then the discussion of race wasn‘t about semantic courtesies and demographics but about a life-and-death struggle involving an invisible nation of disenfranchised people. Locally, a pair of plays by African-American authors look at black life in this country from opposite ends of prosperity, but are too polite to their audiences to leave much of an impact. Jeffrey’s Plan, by Stacey McClain, approaches the spiritual hollowness of the contemporary black middle class, while Gordon Greene‘s Black Leather Soles goes back in time to examine lower-class dreams threatened by the Great Depression.
McClain’s play, running at Stage 52, is a tragicomedy and, like many African-American satires, offers a parade of community types, although it‘s always clear that its target is the young, upwardly mobile citizens of corporate America, the people who years ago were dubbed “buppies.” Jeffrey and Daphne Brooks (Kellita Smith and Wren T. Brown) live large in Los Angeles’ Baldwin Hills until Jeffrey comes home with the news that he‘s been fired. Shaken by one more thud into the glass ceiling, he decides he’s through being the organization man and casts about for ways to be self-employed while bringing something back to “the community.” Daphne, on the other hand, is almost completely oblivious to his crisis, breathlessly caught up as she is in her own skyward trajectory on the corporate ladder. (She seems never to have confronted a glass ceiling and is the kind of person who, if she ever did, would respond by reaching for a bottle of Windex.)
After some false starts, Jeffrey finds his call by creating an organization that is part community self-help program and part black-nationalist movement. Daphne barely tolerates her husband‘s newfound activism, however, and becomes increasingly hostile when she realizes her own career promise may be indirectly jeopardized by it. In the end, Jeffrey’s plan hits something worse than a glass ceiling — the brick wall of the LAPD.
This production has so much going for it that it takes a while to realize how serious its flaws are. Director Dianah Wynter makes good use of a crackling ensemble (some of whose roles are double-cast), especially Smith, whose slinky, waspish Daphne streaks across the stage with impeccable comic panache. A trio of neighborhood layabouts (Mark Anthony Williams, G-Thang and Robert Short) further ground the play in raucous comedy. But as the show‘s set-changing blackouts drag on, it soon becomes apparent that there are too many scenes — more, in fact, than are listed in the program.
More critically, McClain hasn’t figured out how to combine satire with a more serious message about black empowerment. As funny as her jokes about BET and Mercedes-conscious blacks are, they eventually become the show and obscure Jeffrey‘s personal struggles, reducing the play’s political content to a confused and underdeveloped ball of notions that never become ideas. While it‘s not necessary for us to understand just how Jeffrey is able, almost overnight, to launch a mass movement from his living room (there is actually a kind of dreamy fun to this vagueness), it is essential that we know how he wins over wary converts to his cause, something of which we are never convinced.
Perhaps worse, McClain not only abruptly terminates her play with a tragedy that seems almost obligatory, she also blames this disaster on Jeffrey’s wife, who is denounced by the neighborhood snoop and gossip (Michelle Davison) for caring about her own career instead of staying home and “having the man‘s children” — “the man” being her husband. This deeply conservative viewpoint, which received vocal approval from the opening-night audience, seems rooted in the religious traditionalism that is found in the program notes’ many inspirational sentiments. My objection to it does not come from my own beliefs, which happen to be diametrically opposed to what I take to be McClain‘s, but to a presentation that by the end comes so far off the wall that it feels like a tacked-on coda, a remedial solution chosen by a playwright who doesn’t know how to finish her play. For even if you completely shared McClain‘s view of wives as junior partners in matrimony, the current ending does not make Jeffrey’s Plan effective propaganda, let alone provocative theater.
The African-American characters in Black Leather Soles aren‘t cursed with disposable incomes and glass ceilings. Gordon Greene sets his tale about black show people in uptown New York during the Great Depression. The Harlem Renaissance is over, and now entertainers scramble for whatever dimes and exposure they can get. Junior Rawlings (Greene) runs a once-thriving club that can no longer pay its acts. Like Jeffrey’s Plan, Greene‘s play is filled with vivid “types”: tap dancers Scratch & Shuffle (the terrific Rolondas Hendricks and Toby Harris), horny comic Funny (Roscoe Freeman) and blues singer Candy (Temple Parker). Junior is himself a former dancer whose career was cut short by a traffic accident. He is now an employer of talent, and of a staff that includes a slow-witted bartender, Shorty (Roy Lee), a manager, Bobby (Marlon Young), and his bookkeeper, Charlotte (Kaci M. Fannin).
From the double-entendre of its title to Juan Carlos Malpeli’s detailed set, Black Leather Soles shows a lot of potential, but it is never realized. Too much time is spent on the unemotional Junior‘s oedipal tiff with his father (Austin Stoker, in an ill-fitting wig and unconvincing beard), a conflict that is too by-the-numbers to ever seem organic to the story.
The main plot involves Junior’s attempts to hold on to his club in the face of falling patronage, embezzled funds, and threats from Mafia protection man Frankie Romano (Emilio Borelli) and his incontinent triggerman Lefty (Joe Marino), a mirthless goon with a penchant for urinating on the floor through his pants whenever the urge overcomes him. In the hands of a more focused writer and director, these wildly disparate elements could be used to explore such unfamiliar economic and political terrain as intraracial exploitation and class hierarchies. But that would mean putting the audience on the hot seat, and instead Greene director Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter keeps this play‘s tone pingponging between the funereal and slapstick, with the result that it never establishes an identity or rhythm. Just when you think you’re hearing something about ghetto rivalries and white racism, in walks Frankie and his pissing henchman.
It would be patently unfair to fault McClain and Greene for not writing The Slave or not being Amiri Baraka. Still, their two plays, as promising as they are, could have been so much more by refusing to pander to their audiences and instead making them, whether black or white, part of the target. As a Caucasian, I‘m fascinated by white characters written by nonwhites. But in McClain’s play the sole white character is a walk-on cop, and in Greene‘s, the whites are pizza-parlor hoods. They are stereotypes that neither anger nor interest me. Certainly, I feel no complicity in their actions. I am yet another theatergoer who has been let off the hook.