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Ruby's Arms 

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
The title of this play is a pun: Ruby McCollum was a real black woman who, in 1952, shot a white doctor and went to jail. In the segregated town of Live Oak, Fla., the trial was a circus; although Ruby was guilty, only Zora Neale Hurston bothered to nose out the circumstances that made her crime understandable -- why anyone, in fact, could be Ruby. The play shows Hurston covering the trial as a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, and it's fertile soil for drama. Sex, race, class, denial, and jealous rage seethe here like rich compost, along with postmodern questions about narrative and point of view. "It was the O.J. trial of its time," Thulani Davis has said. How could you go wrong?

Good question. But Ruby goes wrong in a number of ways. The first problem is that Davis, who's written novels like 1959 as well as several librettos, loses control of her material: The show takes three hours when it should last two. The second problem is that Stanley Williams' West Coast premiere has no sense of style.

When Hurston arrives in Live Oak, Ruby has recently been arrested for shooting Dr. Leroy Adams in his own office. The white community thinks she's evil, and the black community feels no sympathy. Ruby's husband, Sam McCollum, is a rich numbers-runner, and Ruby has always put on airs. "Listen! She's in damn jail," says a loudmouth in a local bar. "She's headed for the 'lectric chair. She's everybody's Ruby now." But Hurston follows up on a few unreported rumors: Ruby was probably raped by Dr. Adams; she bore him a child, which Sam raised; and she had reason to believe, by the end, that the respectable doctor wanted her dead.

For help investigating these rumors -- since no one in Live Oak believes she's a reporter -- Hurston calls a white journalist friend named William Bradford Huie, who eventually takes over the story. Their joint investigation, and the issue of who "owns" Ruby's story, drives the play. In the process we see crucial scenes among Ruby and Sam and Dr. Adams acted out. The obscurer details of the story are conjured up, literally, by voodoo -- Davis uses Hurston's lifelong fascination with Haitian folk religion as a premise for letting Hurston imagine what no one else could have seen.

It's a transparent device, but it could work. It just needs to be treated with more humor and finesse. Helena Joyce-Wright captures some of Hurston's funny, shambling Northern formality, but she's too self-conscious to make the voodoo scenes convincing. C. Kelly Wright does strong, humanizing work with Ruby, but she's the only compelling aspect of the flashback scenes, because Dr. Adams (David Fine) is a thoroughly evil, whiskey-drinking son of a bitch who would suck on Ruby's nylons in front of her husband. And B. Chico Purdiman, who breathes hilarious life into that loudmouth in the bar, becomes stiff and false as Sam McCollum.

W. Gene Mabrey plays a nicely understated librarian, Beau, who's infatuated with Hurston, while Keith Douglas is also good in his walk-on roles, especially as a young mechanic. But John David is just bottomlessly bad as an obnoxious pharmacist and even more obnoxious judge. He tramples his lines and turns his caricature of a local cracker magistrate into a general embarrassment.

Patrick Toebe's versatile set -- a ramshackle wooden frame held up by two lichen-laced Florida trees, with a pair of doors marked "Colored" and "White" -- creates an appropriate atmosphere, and so does some of the dialogue. (When Hurston first comes on, complaining about the heat, a cleaning woman tells her, "Oh, it'll rain. But it won't help. That's Florida.") And watching what are more or less real historical events play out onstage has its own fascination.

For every strong scene, however, there are two or three ill-paced bits involving the doctor, or Sam, or the obnoxious judge. The whole point of Everybody's Ruby is to humanize Ruby McCollum, but the strange result, at least here, is to dehumanize almost everyone else. At the end, Hurston visits Ruby in jail to offer her food and do her hair, and they talk like old friends; the scene has a quiet, after-the-deluge optimism. But after three hours, the mood's been ruined. The rich dramatic promise of Ruby's trial has gone uncultivated, and Everybody's Ruby just sits there.


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