Black is back. Black history, that is. This weekend, the Heritage Theater Ensemble is showcasing Black in One Act, a collection of one-act plays by black writers of the civil rights era, at the Afro-American Cultural Center. According to the show’s program, the HTE was founded in 1979 to promote “the continuation and evolution of Black theater on Yale’s campus and in the New Haven community.” Jamice Oxley, the show’s executive producer, presents a diverse selection of pieces directed by different students.
The show opens with “Mojo,” by Alice Childress and directed by Camelle Scott ’07. A glimpse of the day-to-day struggles of black working class city-dwellers Teddy (Kyle Brooks ’05) and Irene (Whitney Sparks ’07), the play is fresh and lively. Brooks plays the street-smart, working black man smoothly and convincingly, with all his moves naturally rendered. Sparks conveys Irene’s battles (with cancer and the pain of having given her only child up for adoption) with a little more hesitation, but nonetheless touchingly. It’s hard not to get swept away by the vision the two have of their identities, what it means to be African and how their abstraction of Africa helps them survive and move on.
The drumbeats that come at the end of “Mojo” die down as “Prayer Meeting” begins. In Ben Caldwell’s militant piece, directed by Kobi Libii ’07, a self-righteous, self-concerned preacher (Benji Hurlburt ’08) is fooled by a burglar (played by Scott) masquerading as God. The thief inspires Hurlburt’s character to discover what it means to actually lead and care for his people as they protest police brutality. The actors perfectly embody their roles with Hurlburt’s full gospel Baptist moans and exclamations and Scott’s indignant lordly commands and criticisms. Their dialogue is entertaining, and the story, although somewhat predictable, is excellently told.
But the show’s piece de resistance is undoubtedly Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman”, directed by Melay Araya ’08. In this Obie Award-winning play, a middle-class black college student, Clay (played by Libii), is seduced by an eccentric bohemian white woman, Lula (Josephine Wheelwright ’08), as he rides the New York subway on his way to a party. Clay is well-mannered, well-educated and handsome, and Lula loud, provocative and alluring. Their conversation twists from one subject to the next, as both characters slowly strip away one layer of themselves to reveal another. The dialogue ranges from hilarious to shocking to profound and poetic. Clay’s furious, passionate monologue at the very end is reminiscent of passages from “Invisible Man.” Libii and Wheelwright are impeccable, their conversation an ever-changing exchange, first lightly tossing their remarks at one another and then hurling them with a vengeance. The shocking ending cools in the last few minutes of the play, allowing the viewer’s thoughts to sink in and simmer. Ending on this contemplative note, “Dutchman” proves a fantastic conclusion to the series.
Each piece in the series offers a distinct perspective on the meaning of civil rights, being African American, and existence on the margins of society. The series is an ironically refreshing look back at what black leaders and intellectuals wanted the public to see and hear.
Set designer Patrick Huguenin ’06 has fashioned an unobtrusive stage on which the stories unfold. Although sparse and a bit shabby, it works, though there is some awkwardness during the transitions from one play to another, at times making it a bit unclear whether or not another piece is starting. The endings of the first two plays might have been more powerful if they were more definite.
Taken as a whole, however, the show’s remarkable acting, provocative material, and the opportunity to see pieces that are not often performed today makes Black in One Act worth seeing. It gets better and better as it progresses, and it ends giving the audience something to think about.