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Wednesday, Dec 10 1997
Madame Bitch
Portraits of a Black Queen. Written and performed by Craig Hickman. At Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. (at Market), Nov. 19-23. Call 861-7933.

Craig Hickman is a Boston actor who blew into town for five nights last month, doing what might be called a cabaret act, if the term still includes a sense of the gender-bent stages of 1930s Berlin. Hickman's loose one-man collection of characters and poetry was called Portraits of a Black Queen, and even though it was expertly performed, funny, full of humanity and wit, the material would still be taboo in most houses on Broadway. Certain things just aren't talked about, darling, not even at the end of this decadent century.

Hickman started with a quick story related in mannered doggerel with a lot of posturing, then relaxed and told the audience, "This is not a poetry reading." This was a relief. He moved into a straightforward portrait of a weave specialist in a hair salon who admitted to being a queen: "Some people don't like that name, but I look at it this way, honey," he said. "If somebody's gonna call you royalty, you betta put on that crown." The stylist's real name was Richie (I think), and soon Hickman became Richie's aunt, a priggish, churchgoing matron called Dessa Rose, after the heroine of a Shirley Anne Williams novel. This formidable woman spoke into the microphone with an aging, smoky voice; she told a story about Richie's upbringing that dealt along the way with black homophobia and the deadly lack of talk in "the community" about AIDS. Dessa Rose worked in an STD clinic; she treated a strange young man for gonorrhea in the rectum only a few hours before the same young man showed up at her home as Richie's boyfriend. The situation was a rich target for Dessa's sharp tongue, and the whole story, coming from a woman who loved her nephew but rejected his sex life, was freighted with pathos and heartbreak. Nothing else Hickman did that night quite touched Dessa Rose.

His other characters included a teen-age girl who set her baby floating in a boat of rushes during the '60s because she couldn't get an abortion; Hickman told her story in verse, intercut with lines from Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child." There was also a 12-year-old black kid in Chicago who found a thicket full of gay men in the park; his story was scattered with lines from "Strange Fruit." The tales were haunting and obscure. Hickman was in full control of his body and voice, but sometimes in the fever of reciting poetry he allowed himself overwrought lines like, "The air around me sputtered in search of retort," which couldn't hold their own. These were quibbles in an otherwise powerful performance, though, and it was good to see someone handling such frank material with so much bitchy grace.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Notes from the Velveteen Underground
The Velveteen Rabbit. Choreography and direction by KT Nelson. Performed by ODC/San Francisco. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard (at Third Street), through Dec. 14. Call 978-2787. At Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic, Walnut Creek, Dec. 26-28. Call (510) 943-7469.

Maurice Sendak once said that the best children's books "tell things about life children know instinctively" -- things like "fear, anger, hate, frustration: all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces." For a drama on stage or page to work its way into the fortress of a child's interior experience, it has to engage threatening feelings but also offer a way through them. The best storybooks -- Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is one of them -- use the distancing devices of metaphor and allegory to create a story that works like dance. Through image and action, it conveys internal states. So a picture book-dance is a kind of dance-dance, redoubling the effect of the original story.

The story-dance currently playing Center for the Arts -- ODC/San Francisco's The Velveteen Rabbit -- is based on a tale so entrenched in childhood fears and needs that it gives a kid no choice but to become enthralled. Margery Williams' 1922 classic of the same name is an allegory for growing up where a toy rabbit gradually turns "Real." Like every child, the rabbit has to be loved before he can achieve autonomy. Every time the rabbit is forgotten or belittled, the story reminds one of the terrible possibility of never growing up; and every time he moves forward -- into the arms of the boy and, later, into the warrened woods -- we feel weepy relief.

Choreographed and directed by KT Nelson, ODC/San Francisco's Velveteen Rabbit works best when it capitalizes on dance's likeness to a picture book, its bold expression and fine underlay of feeling. Near the story's conclusion, the boy has had scarlet fever; all his belongings, rabbit included, must be burned. Direct and laconic, the narrator tells us the rabbit "felt very lonely." The modern dance's chorus does an equally straightforward "lonely": Clumped together, the dancers shake jaggedly under unsteady light. And when the fully Real rabbit discovers his newly bloomed hind legs and joins the other rabbits in a happy clutter of leaps, skips, and unfurling extensions, we understand "he was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits."

But these numbers come too late to save the dance from its hazy first half, where Nelson both pads inconsequential details and fails to foreground those moments that clarify what's at stake. Until the last half-hour, the dance buries its emotional through-line. At one point, the narrator (clown Geoff Hoyle, on tape) pits the mechanical toys "full of modern ideas" against the rabbit, full of sawdust, whom they "quite snubbed." But they never dance the difference between the toys' brittle stasis and the soft animal's malleable state of becoming. As a small compensation for the incomparable difficulty of growing, we need to see that contrast. Equally feeble until late in the dance is the tenderness between boy (Daniel Levi-Sanchez) and rabbit (Heather Tietsort). Unlike literature, dance can embody the love that transforms the rabbit's cloth and sawdust into fur and blood, so why hasn't it?

Perhaps Nelson is embarrassed by the story. Its emotions are as ripe as good cheese, but they're not cheesy. Williams' Velveteen Rabbit stands too close to a child's existential wishes and anxieties to fall for false sentiment. A dance that remained faithful to the original Rabbit would have nothing to fear but the voracious force of childhood it awoke.

-- Apollinaire Scherr


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