It's impossible to say why the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre decided to put the two one-acts, Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward and Almost Nothing by Marcos Barbosa (translated by Mark O'Thomas), into a single evening's bill.
The plays would be tricky enough to produce separately. There's not a likable character in either one, and both plots are almost static. Combining them makes success all the more difficult because they have almost nothing in common -- not genre, not style, not subject matter. Their marriage feels not jarring or artistically interesting so much as it does totally random -- and bewildering.
Day of Absence does have some comedic merits. Written in 1965, the play is about a fictional Jim Crow town whose "negras" (a term created for this update that includes black people and Hispanics) have all magically disappeared, leaving the white residents with shoes unshined, bathrooms uncleaned, and babies' diapers unchanged. The diverse cast members sport clownish white masks, exaggerating gestures and speech to match -- their "Cinco de Mayo" sounds like a condiment -- reversing the minstrelsy tradition to caricature white Southerners.
What makes all this work is the pan-phonic beatboxing of Carlos Aguirre, whose rhythms create everything from the knocking on a door to the white people's "peculiar feeling" that something's amiss before they realize that their "darkies" and "chickaboos" have vanished. His music is so contagious that the characters occasionally can't resist dropping what they're doing and dancing to it, which becomes a delightful suggestion that white people get their strength in part from empowering personal soundtracks -- from an African musical tradition, no less.
But even Aguirre can't save this play from its central problem: while brave and potent in 1965, it lacks similar power now. It's hilarious and compelling to see nonwhite actors mock "crackas" at first, but the bombardment of one cartoonish white Southern stereotype after another soon makes this play feel like a repeating loop. It either recycles different versions of the same joke, or it ridicules prejudices so absolutist and explicit that it feels too easy for today's audiences -- much as its appended references to the Tea Party and the immigration debate try to bridge the temporal gap.
The second drama, Almost Nothing, would be hard enough to get into on its own, but after the antics of the first, it takes a special mental effort. The show opens with a clearly shaken but affluent couple (Rhonnie Washington and Kathryn Tkel) spending an entire scene talking about a headache. The dialogue and rhythm feel startlingly real -- with sentences to nowhere and the gaping silences that follow them. But after the zippy chatter of the first show, it's tough to summon the patience for the second one, especially once it becomes apparent that the whole story -- about a hit and run, some hush money and a more deliberate murder -- is going to unfold just as the opening.
The details trickle in as veritable drops of plot that swell in a leaky faucet before, eons later, they gather enough weight to fall. It's particularly frustrating that with all this time for subtext, it doesn't become apparent until the last scene that this play is actually about the dissolution of a comfortable marriage, as each discovers the evil his or her partner is capable of.
It's an unfortunate inauguration of the theater's new Post Street home, but the production does raise interesting questions: If a one-act were written today about the disappearance of minorities, would contemporary white people react differently? What language would they use to discuss it? And what play could be paired with this one to reveal new shades of meaning, as opposed to just rounding out the evening?
Day of Absence and Almost Nothing continue through Nov. 20 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Admission is $43-$53.