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Wednesday, Sep 3 1997
Black Like Us
Afro Solo. Performance fest organized by Thomas Robert Simpson. At the ODC Performance Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Shotwell), Aug. 21-24. Call 346-9344.

The fourth annual Afro Solo Festival consisted of four very different days and nights, so any review of just one date is bound to be incomplete. I went to Friday night's program, which had pieces dealing with Buddhism, racism, and homosexuality, as opposed, say, to the "Family Matinee" on Sunday or the Saturday night blues date with Charles ("Merry Christmas Baby") Brown. The Family Matinee could be counted on to be a little soft, was my thinking, and Brown could be counted on to be fun; but a program dealing with deliberately edgy material would be unpredictable.

The first piece was a simple lecture by Azel Jones, who is a Buddhist. He sat on a round meditation pillow in half-lotus position ("The Black Lotus" was the lecture's title), and held the audience's attention with nothing but his voice. At first he was monotone, paced, and precise, moving from parables to clear explication of Buddhist dogma without boring the crowd. He established a veneer that felt as potent as sake. "Any life that is not removed from passion and desire," he declared, "is involved with distress," and he went on to describe the Buddhist notion of evil. He set everything up so carefully I expected a cool, insightful conclusion; but his veneer broke apart and he lost the thread of his lecture, and the piece became nothing more than the sum of its parts, which was disappointing.

The second piece, "A Lesson Learned," was a multicharacter skit about black skin and lesbianism. Alison Wright was good at every voice in her story but her own, which is so common in single-actor shows it deserves to be a subject in college theater departments. I suspect the hard time some actors have finding a natural, personal public voice -- even when they're skilled at rendering other characters (and Wright's mother, grandmother, and Irish girlfriend were all convincing) -- is part of the reason some people become actors. Wright's piece felt strong not just because it was focused but also because she met racism straight on: The horrible things her characters called each other kept the audience rapt. It was a story most of us have heard before -- person feels marginalized for skin color and/or sleeping with the wrong gender, and resolves it with an affirmation of spiritual worth -- but it never hurts to hear it again.

"The Confessions of Walter R." by Brian Freeman was a monologue about being black and gay in England that amounted to sexual biography -- delivered from a comfy chair, with flowers, à la Quentin Crisp -- which despite some potential for comedy turned out to be a boring genre.

The last piece had the most energy. Edriss Cooper started "The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of Academic Clarity and Inclusion" with sassy back-talk to a very white, educrat-sounding offstage voice that needled her with questions about romanticism and Ibsen. It was a funny but broad satire of being black at the University of Iowa. From there it moved into a poetic, indigo-lit dance interval with ocean sounds and mellow African music. Then came an intense, angry monologue about racism that worked in Perseus and Medusa. Cooper was in total control of her material, and each phase of her piece, even when it didn't relate clearly to the others, was coherent and focused. The last section had Cooper acting sassy again, this time with the audience, in a hot red dress. The woman is armed with the gift of personality, so even if her piece lacked a clear story line it was never boring. "You cannot ignore me," she said more than once, and she was right.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Phaedra Sucks
Phaedra's Love. By Sarah Kane. Directed by Steve Cosson. Starring David Kupchinsky, Molly Goode, and Mary Catherine Garrison. Presented by Smart Mouth Theater at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Sept. 7. Call 626-3311.

"I have further taken care," wrote Jean Racine in 1677, "to make Phaedra somewhat less odious than she is in the tragedies of the Ancients, where she herself resolves to accuse Hippolytus [of rape]. I felt that the calumny was rather too base and foul to be put into the mouth of a princess whose sentiments were otherwise so noble and so virtuous." Sarah Kane is a young British playwright who can't be said to share Racine's delicacy. Following the national scandal of her first play, Blasted -- which the London Evening Standard called "a systematic trawl through the deepest pits of human degradation" -- Kane has made the ancient story of Phaedra somewhat more odious than it is in Greek myth by putting into the heroine's mouth not just the charge of rape, but also -- to the outrage of Britain's conservative press, again -- her stepson's penis. This is the real focus of the play. Friendly London critics have called the script things like "a measured study of the curiously likeable Hippolytus," praising Kane for shifting her focus from the traditional main character (Phaedra) to the surly, unwilling object of her love; but Phaedra's Love frankly revolves around Hippolytus' dick.

To ruin the plot: His penis gets wanked, sucked by Phaedra, sucked by a priest, and finally cut off. Hippolytus is the bored slacker prince of a modern but unspecific royal family. He watches TV all day, masturbates, and blows his nose in his socks. His father, Theseus, is off somewhere, and his stepmother, Phaedra, admits that she's in love with him in spite of his selfish and disgusting habits. "Not very logical," Hippolytus points out. "Love isn't," she says. This much of the play is interesting and sharp. Kane has a talent for crisp satirical lines; in a single scrap of dialogue she sets up the family's whole incestuous situation. "You're just like your father," Phaedra says after the royal blow job. "That's what your daughter said," Hippolytus replies. Molly Goode finds a nervous, pathetic, giggly side of Phaedra that makes her a convincing obsessive; David Kupchinsky is also an effectively snide and spoiled prince, delivering his lines in a flat voice that only sometimes lacks real bitterness. The first half of the play feels, appealingly, like a whacked soap opera parody.

But Kane's script doesn't deliver. The show's second half is totally unmotivated. Hippolytus has a sudden taste for self-willed doom after Phaedra accuses him of rape and commits suicide; but his moral stance is shoehorned into the action from the Phaedra tradition and it doesn't feel convincing onstage. There's also no clear motivation for the priest to go down on him in jail (because he's Catholic?), or for the royal half-sister to get raped in the final scene. After Phaedra dies, the play descends into a collegiate joke about the work itself, and to me this collapses all the controversy over Kane. She hasn't even earned her own scandal. The argument boils down to can-you-do-that-onstage, which is juvenile, and gives an unflattering impression of the state of free speech in England.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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