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Enormous pages from turn-of-the-century volumes of poetry stand 20 feet tall on the stage of the Kreeger Theater at the outset of Oak and Ivy. Art nouveau scrollwork swirls gracefully around the margins of the marbled paper. The pretty, decorous image evokes Victorian notions of poetry as high art, and as the lights come up on a lithe, delicately featured Alice Ruth Moore (Margo Hall) gently urging an African-American girls’ writing class to be brave, to dare to create verse no matter how scary the process, an erudite, sensitive world comes sharply into focus.
An altogether different aspect of that same Victorian world is evoked when Paul Laurence Dunbar (L. Peter Callender) recites one of the popular dialect poems that earned him literary fame, as well as the dismissive epithet “the world’s only rhyming Negro”:
Seen my lady home las’ night,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hel’ huh han’ an’ sque’z it tight,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,
Seen a light gleam f’om huh eye,
An’ a smile go flittin’ by
Jump back, honey, jump back.
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Explaining how Moore, who hailed from a prosperous New Orleans family, and Dunbar, whose parents were slaves, might have reconciled their disparate worlds and begun what was to be a brief, and literarily storm-tossed, marriage is the task to which playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson and director Charles Randolph-Wright set themselves in the first act of Oak and Ivy. With a big assist from their leads, whose chemistry together builds bridges that scarcely require words at all, they pretty much succeed. In real life, Dunbar wooed Moore by mail after spotting her picture in a poetry magazine; on their first meeting onstage, Hall’s regal manner melts with such appeal under the glare of Callender’s sexy smile that the two would register as soul mates even if they hadn’t spent whole scenes reading each other’s poetry to friends and professing adoration from afar.
But bringing these opposites together in a persuasive manner proves far easier for the creative team than the second-act business of driving wedges between them. Which is not to suggest that the playwright hasn’t set up credible conflicts. Dunbar’s mother, Matilda (a feisty Shona Tucker), whose tales of plantation life have provided Dunbar with much of his finest imagery, doesn’t take at all kindly to her son’s new wife, and because they all live together in Matilda’s home, the domestic pressures prove fierce. When the family moves from Dayton, Ohio, where Moore feels stifled, to Washington, where Dunbar’s job as a clerk at the Library of Congress interferes with his writing and where Matilda is flat-out miserable, the pressures only increase. And once Paul’s nagging cough is diagnosed as tubercular, it’s easy to ascribe its cause to familial tension and conclude that the marriage won’t stand the strain.
Unfortunately, while all these pressures accumulate plausibly during Act 2with Moore chafing, Dunbar hacking, and Matilda complainingthey never gather much dramatic force. Nor are they articulated in a way that allows them to stand in for the conflicts within turn-of-the-century society. There’s a telling moment early on when Moore’s girlfriends say something about Dunbar’s dark skin being a drawback in the lighter-hued, cultivated African-American circles in which they travel, and another in which Matilda derides the pretensions of this developing black middle class. But having laid out these areas of conflict, the author never does much more than repeat them. When, late in Act 2, one of Moore’s snobbish friends shows up for a visit and all the same points get made one more time, it becomes painfully clear that the characters have been running in place all evening.
Just as stasis proved enervating in the Kreeger’s previous tenanta well-acted but mostly inert Georgia O’Keeffe biography called The Faraway Nearbythe absence of dramatic development eventually takes its toll on Oak and Ivy, turning designer Tony Cisek’s huge, art nouveau-bordered pages that float skyward during scene transitions into little more than frames in a theatrical photo album. Scenes march by, prettily but repetitivelya parade of sepia snapshots featuring Helen Q. Huang’s floor-length gowns and Michael Gilliam’s gently dappled lighting effectswithout ever quite coalescing into a progression of events.
What’s frustrating is that there’s an interesting issue lurking in the background of this decorative pageant that McGhee-Anderson has not found a way to dramatize: Dunbar’s struggle to tell his mother’s slave stories in a recognizably authentic voice but in a literary style to match the sophistication of Longfellow, Keats, Wordsworth, and the other classic poets to whom he was being compared. Strangely, although this clash between the vernacular and the high-flown is one of the main themes of the evening, it always takes a back seat dramatically to the household’s domestic squabbling.
The author quotes copiously from the still-apropos race- and gender-sensitive writing of both her protagonistsincluding such oft-cited Dunbar tropes as “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” and “I know why the caged bird sings,” and a similarly sharp, if less-quoted essay by Moore decrying the “serfdom” that marriage imposes on women. The characters, perhaps predictably, are never more forceful than when they’re standing front and center, soliloquizing in the words that made them famous. All of which goes to prove that Dunbar and Moore knew whereof they wrote all those many years ago. Hobbled, whether by social strictures or dramatic ones, they’re considerably reducedin this case to figures in a theatrical diorama. Left to speak for themselves, they leap pretty effortlessly past the footlights.CP