Mismatched Mishmash

11. November, 2011 Theater No comments

Longtime American Conservatory Theater actor Steven Anthony Jones opens the first season he’s programmed as the new artistic director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the Bay Area’s foremost African-American theatre company, with a double bill of two one-act plays that have almost nothing to do with each other. The show also marks the theater’s opening in its new home at 450 Post Street, formerly the Post Street Theatre and Theatre on the Square, after several nomadic years.

Kathryn Tkel and Rhonnie Washington in Almost Nothing. Photo by Steven Anthony Jones.

Day of Absence is a notable play in African-American theater history, a 1965 piece that marked the playwriting debut of Douglas Turner Ward, who’d appeared in a minor part in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The play depicts a city in the American South in which one day all the black people simply vanish. The white folks panic because there’s no one to clean after them, look after their babies, and do all the jobs they don’t want to do. It seems like the end of the world. A very broad satire performed in whiteface, Day of Absence set the stage for countless other “A Day Without…” pieces in subsequent years.

Unfortunately, as directed by Jones, it’s also a complete debacle, packed with bafflingly pointless and hard-to-parse slapstick from a cast that should know better. Only Mime Troupe veteran Wilma Bonet manages to squeeze some genuinely funny moments out of what’s otherwise a hamhanded mess. Carlos Aguirre provides some skillful beatbox accompaniment as a trickster character whose function in the action is unclear, but it doesn’t really suit the tone of the piece. There’s also an attempt to update the story to the current furor over undocumented immigrants with Latino names for some of the missing black people and lines like “Th-th-this a holiday for ’em? Cinco de Mayo or somethin’?” (the character who’s speaking, Rhonnie Washington’s Luke, is a stutterer, a hillbilly and possibly homeless—or at least he hangs out on a park bench all day). But there’s no outright talk of Mexicans or “illegals” or anything like that, so the upshot seems to be that all Latinos are black people, or at least nobody knows the difference.  It’s deeply garbled, and the fact that it’s hard to discern what’s supposed to be happening in all the wacky slapstick just exacerbates the problem.

Day of Absence runs an hour and 20 minutes, which could be an evening in its own right, and with a late start and long intermission on opening night, Almost Nothing didn’t start until shortly after 10 p.m., when the temptation to slip out during intermission was nearly overpowering. That would have been a shame, because the latter play is actually quite good and well-performed.

A 2003 short drama by 34-year-old Brazilian playwright Marcos Barbosa in its North American premiere, Almost Nothing is a tense, suspenseful piece about a couple who shot and killed a young man who seemed to be about to attack them. Even that information is very slow to emerge as Washington’s Antônio and Kathryn Tkel’s Sara unwind in their fancy living room. (The quartet that performs Almost Nothing is also among the nine-person ensemble of Absence, but don’t hold that against them.) She’s clearly shaken and upset, shying away from his amorous advances, but at first we don’ t know if they’re even a couple or if she’s just some beautiful young woman who doesn’t want to be there alone with this older man. They’ve clearly just returned from a fancy-dress party, judging from costumer Michelle Mulholland’s elegant threads. A cold-sounding wind whistles through in David Molina’s sound design.

The dialogue is very, very spare and the performances restrained, keeping the tension taut. Ashberry is genial and assured, and Tkel at times chillingly intense. Bonet is forceful as a damning witness to the incident, and Rudy Guerrero is sinisterly ingratiating as a private detective. Jones directs this one-hour play deftly, letting events take their time to slowly unfold, and the result is a lean and muscular gem. It’s hard to see what on earth it has to do with the preceding piece, and surely it would be better off without it, but it’s a beautiful payoff to an otherwise rough and very long night.

Day of Absence & Almost Nothing
Through November 20
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
450 Post St.
San Francisco

Show #98 of 2011, attended October 14.

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