"Envisioning Classics With Color" -- that's the African-American Shakespeare Company's motto. Founded by Sherri Young in 1993, the company is putting a new spin on the Western dramatic canon by turning the casting tables -- in company productions, traditionally white protagonists are played by actors of color, and white actors get the servants' roles. (There's gender cross-casting as well.) The company also injects traditional texts with black cultural motifs and themes: The Taming of the Shrew closed with a grits 'n' ribs barbecue fest, and in Oedipus Rex an all-black a cappella gospel troupe swapped chords with Sophocles' chorus -- call it revision, with color. In their latest production, director Manu Makasa transforms Richard Sheridan's late-18th-century comedy of manners School for Scandal into a playful look into the lives of America's black nouveau riche.
Rap music, Ebonics, Southern drawls, and culturally loaded substitutions put a 180-degree spin on Sheridan's white-gentried London, questioning what it means to be an African-American caught up by the power of the dollar. The play unfolds as follows: Lady Sneerwell (Jan Hunter) dresses up like Scary Spice in a silky leopard-skin print to snare eligible bachelor Joseph Surface (Michael Asberry). Joseph's a class-A cad and porn aficionado who tends not to discriminate between skirts. While spinster Sneerwell chases him, Joseph's omnivorous flirting tempts Lady Teazle (Victoria Evans) into taking a breath of extramarital fresh air. Hailing from a lowly stock, Lady Teazle married the wealthy, tubby Sir Peter (played by Asian-American Fred Savallon) to get her hands on his purse strings. Sexually frustrated and starved for love, Sir Peter asks, "Am I not to be in a good humor without paying for it?" He hopes he can Slim-Fast his way into her heart.
Meanwhile Charles (Rico E. Anderson), Joseph's profligate younger brother, sells off his legacy -- family portraits -- to support his booze-soaked lifestyle. Then there's Sir Peter's ward, the beautiful Maria (Angela Farr), who stands apart from her fellow socialites. (She puts Joseph's wandering hand back in its place.) During a cocktail hour she refuses to gossip along with the rest, chastising them for the "intemperance of their tongues." Hers is the only voice of moderation until Sir Oliver Surface (played by Belinda Sullivan) returns incognito from the East Indies and puts the brakes on.
Conceptually, the play works on a couple of levels. Of course the story speaks to universals about money and its shallowing out of genuine emotion, a theme that the company shows applies equally to 18th-century whites and 20th-century blacks. However, there's more here than a representation of how the leisure class transcends racial divides. Black individuals excluded from performing or even attending this play in the 18th-century push the margins to center stage. What does it mean for a black character with Charles' money to be willing to sell out his own history, marked de facto by slavery -- a system that among other things controlled its objects by cutting out their tongues in an attempt to erase their sense of a collective past?
We certainly need such re-visions. This one offers a lively performance by founder Young as the Bible-swinging, gossipmongering Mrs. Candour, and Michael Asberry gets some laughs with Joseph's exaggeratedly affected worm-my-way-out-of-a-corner monologues. But overall the production stumbles; its pacing is uneven, sometimes sluggish, and some actors trip over their lines. By the time the three hours are up, a certain numbness of mind and body has set in.
-- Frederick Luis Aldama
The Buzz About Streb
Streb. Choreography by Elizabeth Streb. At Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, Jan. 30-31. Call (510) 642-1068.
Elizabeth Streb, mastermind of the "popaction" group Streb, uses her nine-person troupe and elaborate state-of-the-art harnesses, pulleys, trampolines, and giant levers to revamp dance. She describes her project as "an attempt to expose movement's true nature [and] isolate the basic principles of time, space and human movement potential." She's fantasized about the body "doing things it has never done before" and surviving a "real move" -- "a force rip[ping] through your body the way a tornado rips through the landscape."
The company's recent appearance at Zellerbach seemed slightly more mundane than the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient's theories would lead you to expect. The whole event took place on an enormous and clever collapsible contraption with unfolding walls and a trampoline tricked up with sensors that triggered a constant whoosh of electro-pings and -wheezes. In All/Wall, a wall descended, and performers scrambled up its vertical surface; slammed against it with limbs splayed; and, hanging from fingertips, used their legs to catch and slow the precipitous descent of other dancers. Breakthru, a 10-second dance, was only this: a performer diving through (breakaway) glass. We watched bodies confront obstacles, purely and graphically.
Several of the pieces employed elaborate rigging. Fly strapped one dancer to an immense counterweighted beam that spun her in a large, wavy circle over the heads of the other dancers, who swan-dove onto mats alongside and fell like bowling pins as she whizzed by. Look Up harnessed three dancers to pulleys; with sheer perpendicular wall as their ground, they spun and jumped horizontally out into space. The dancers and their contraptions were decked out in kindergarten colors that shouted, "Cheery! Simple!" In implicit assent, the audience laughed readily at the daring stunts.
But the celebratory spirit couldn't block out a strange buzz of dejà vu. With every move of the colorful little homunculi poinging against miked walls and those invisible sensors in an eerie symphony of techno-noise, as if they were caught inside a huge pinball machine, I could barely think at all. Of course, what I thought about was The Fly. In David Cronenberg's sad horror film, sweet and nerdy scientist Jeff Goldblum accidentally mixes up his molecules with those of a fly. No problem -- he looks good, he feels great. He thinks that with the help of a machine he's become a perfect embodiment of his human potential. It's only later that he fills his medicine cabinet with his former ears and teeth while growing an extra pair of legs.