The impulse behind Tazewell Thompson’s five-performer, one-character, a cappella hagiography, Constant Star, is roughly as laudable as it is schematic: Take an unsung story of civil rights activism and sing the hell out of it.
To that purpose, the writer/director has five actresses stride purposefully onto the Kreeger Theater stage and belt spirituals to the rafters while jointly embodying Ida B. Wellsborn into slavery, and alternately praised and reviled as a courageously obstreperous
publisher, agitator, founder of the NAACP, and sister struggler with Susan B. Anthony in the cause of women’s suffrage.
As the performers recount Wells’ story in brief vignettes, it’s easy enough to see why Thompson would think he needed five performers to do her justice. Less clear is why he’s employed so many theatrical distractions to soften the impact of the harsh forces that made her who she was.
Orphaned at 16, and left to be the sole caretaker for a large brood of younger siblings, Wells grew up to be witness toand an outspoken participant inone of the more turbulent periods in American history. The decades in which she lived were marked by horrific lynchings as well as by substantial civil rights progress, and both sides of that social equation are represented in Constant Star, along with brisk asides about her determination to be notable not just as an activist, but also as a wife and mother.
The woman seems, at least from the evidence presented onstage, to have been fearlessas eager to take on Booker T. Washington for being a civil rights conciliator as she was to take on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for forcing her to sit in coach when she had paid for a first-class seat. So it says something about the overblown school show that Thompson has built around her that a life so crammed with conflict could emerge onstage as essentially undramatic.
As Constant Star leaps jarringly from harrowing descriptions of black folks being tortured to reassuring chatter around Wells’ dinner table, it seems unable to decide whether it most wants to be consciousness-raising or spirit-rousing. With an energetic assist from five extravagantly gifted performers, Thompson ultimately settles for something in between, sort of For Colored Girls Who Are Damned If They’ll Consider Suicide When the Early-20th-Century Rainbow Isn’t Nearly Enuf.
I can only guess as to how much of the dialogue actually comes from Wells’ writings, but as rendered onstage it’s never less than snappy, and it exhibits a crowd-pleasing prescience in such lines as “There ought to be a law against smoking in public places” and “The man now sitting in the White House is…a village idiot.” But if the banter is bracing, it’s alsorather more frequently than is really wisebroken into short sentence fragments…and…distributed randomly among the…five performers…just for effect, an oomph-providing technique that has more to do with directorial showboating than with illuminating content.
For a revue, Constant Star is what you might call attractively overproduced, with Donald Eastman providing a beautifully detailed, wood-paneled newspaper office, complete with working printing press, towering file cabinets, and clerestory windows. Not one of these accouterments is so much as referred to after a typewriter-clattering opening scene that establishes the evening’s bustle and verve, but that’s probably just because there’s little time, what with all the illustrative gesturing going on. Solo, in tandem, and in contrapuntal concurrence, the performers are doing more forceful waving, shrugging, grabbing, pounding, stomping, strutting, and finger-jabbing than you can shake a music director’s baton atalong with some very sweet harmonizing (to terrific arrangements by Dianne Adams McDowell) and a bit of sprightly dancing.
The director finds all sorts of tricky stage business to justify so much activity. At one point, for no apparent reason, the actors cover all the furniture with white sheets, then uncover it again and fashion the sheets into a makeshift funeral shroud. The latter effect would doubtless seem nifty if the former weren’t so head-scratchingly clumsy in setting it up. But never mind. The tumult at least gives the impression that something’s going on.
The intentions, in short, are golden, the performances accomplished, the production details lavishand the execution contrived beyond words. But I should note that my reservations about Constant Star did not seem to be widely shared on opening night. The invited crowd stood for the curtain calls and appeared to be enjoying itself far more than had first-nighters for the gloriously unorthodox, Eastern European Streetcar Named Desire that just concluded its run next door at the Fichandler, which I found infinitely more intriguing.
The same week Charter Theatre was honored with a Helen Hayes Award for its discovery of A House in the Country, the troupe premiered I Love You, demonstrating what an utter crapshoot the mounting of new plays can be. Count it as one of those accidents of timing that plague promising young theater companies and make their ultimate success all the more rewarding.
On paper, Peter Sherman’s farce about death and forgiveness doubtless has some charm; onstage, it’s an unrewarding riff on Sartre’s No Exit for an act and a half, followed by a cosmically sentimental, decidedly unexistential wrap-up. The story centers on a birthday party Lois (Cam Magee) throws every year for her dead husband. Her kids hate the tradition, and after 25 years of celebrating, Lois seems a bit exhausted by it as well. This year, however, things are enlivened somewhat when the birthday boy himself shows up.
That’s about all the plot I can recount without giving away the author’s second-act surprises. Suffice it to say that Sherman spends too much time having characters sow confusion by beating obliquely around bushesand that it’s hard to maintain interest once it becomes clear that a sentence or two spoken plainly would clear everything up. Paul Donnelly’s staging seems pitched for a larger auditorium than the intimate church basement his actors occupy. The performers work hardtoo hard, reallymugging and hurling themselves around the living-room-sized space, as if sheer energy could propel the lines into hilarity. CP