A sweetly sung seduction…an illustrated ’50s lecture for white folks on “How to Treat a Negro”… a wheelchair-bound Harlem resident’s memories of coming out…a geezer barking furiously at a dog owner…choreographed sexplay that’s every bit as resonant as it is raunchyof such materials has Brian Freeman constructed Civil Sex, his vivid (if as yet unfinished) performance piece exploring a half-century of black gay life in America.
The piece uses the story of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin as a starting point, but with its three-member cast leaping brightly into dance, drag, and interview-based stand-up routines, it hardly qualifies as conventional biography. It’s too lively to be constrained by conventions of any sort, actually, including the theatrical ones that might help shape it more effectively. Still, when Civil Sex is working, it’s pretty damn riveting, and when it’s not working, you can always see its possibilities.
At present, it works best when it’s doing the hard stuff: painting a portrait of Rustin (wittily played by Duane Boutté) as a principled idealist without making him saintly, and detailing his sex life without turning exploitative. Freeman’s work with the comedy troupe Pomo Afro Homos serves him well, and it’s clear from the way he weaves interview material into the mix that he’s familiar with the work of Anna Deavere Smith. As the evening brushes in such details as Rustin’s WWII pacifism, his organizing of the March on Washington, and his career-disrupting arrest in 1953 for having sex with two young men in the back seat of his car, it manages to be deft, personal, and briskly amusing while suggesting concerns far broader than the events being chronicled.
Take the unnervingly uproarious talk Rustin delivers in Philadelphia’s Fellowship Hall on the night he meets Davis Platt (Michael Stebbins), a white 20-year-old who became his lover. In dramatic terms, the lecture is exposition, a device to remind the theater audience about the sorts of prejudice ’50s African-Americans faced from even their most liberal white friends. Boutté plays it as a sort of subversive stand-up act, adopting a pleasant but insistently nondeferential tone as he uses drawings to illustrate preferred behavior (“stand in the presence of Negro women”) to the theater audience.
One of these drawings, illustrating interracial friendships, shows two women walking arm in arm. The picture is studiedly neutralnot the least bit sexually chargedbut precisely for that reason, it raises all sorts of gender-specific questions. A picture of two men walking arm in arm would clearly have an entirely different and more threatening impact on white ’50s viewers, as would a drawing of a man and a woman, whichever way the racial divide came into play. About the only way to separate sexual issues from racial issues in such a drawing would be to picture small children (what you might call the Benetton approach), and Freeman hasn’t had Rustin do that. So, without a word being spoken, the centrality of sex in what most people tend to think of as purely racial prejudice is made clear.
There are many such economical moments as the evening works its way through its central character’s romances, incarcerations, and political schemes. Freeman, who not only wrote the evening but also staged it, mostly plays peripheral figures, adopting the personae of several of the friends and colleagues of Rustin’s he interviewed while gathering source material, and using their words to comment from the sidelines in elder-statesman fashion. This leaves Boutté and Stebbins to play out most of the evening’s dramatic sequences, which they do with authority, grace, and no little humor.
Boutté makes Rustin a sexy, appealing smoothie, with a sly way of making political points in the middle of his seductions. His high, sweet tenor, displayed on an achingly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” is also a plus. Stebbins is enormously funny as a series of the whitest white folks to take the stage in some time, and oddly touching when he dons a wig to play women. With Freeman generously giving them plenty of opportunity to shine as he bounces around them from role to role and costume to costume right up to an Act 1 finale that morphs backseat sexplay into a police lineup, Civil Sex pretty much roars along.
And then stops dead. As of opening night, the evening didn’t have a second act, by which I don’t mean the actors didn’t perform after intermission, only that they were doing so without apparent script or direction. Scenes weren’t just drifting, they were actively disintegrating, to the point that during one broadcast-interview sequence that brings together Rustin and Malcolm X, all three performers were clearly winging it. Freeman kept struggling to improvise Malcolm’s arguments in a free-form ramble, Boutté’s Rustin listened in vain for cues, and Stebbins looked vaguely helpless as he pretended, in a conversation with gaps through which whole caravans could be driven, to be an interlocutor who couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Presumably, all of this has since been fixed.
With luck, so has another scene in which a law(?) professor (I’m guessing here) with sharp points to make about prejudice wasn’t making them very sharply. On opening night, the scene was all stammering and doubling back, and had the further disadvantage of placing Freeman, who played the prof, in the confusing position of addressing his arguments quite literally to himself, Boutté having been temporarily pressed into service to play Freeman-the-author/interviewer. There’s no particular point to the device, since other characters have pretended all evening to talk to the author without anyone actually playing him.
In any event, one of Civil Sex’s most intriguing pointswhat may be, in fact, its central pointgot shortchanged. So let’s just reiterate it for the record. The prof’s argument is that black men, gay and straight, have much in common, since white America views not just homosexuality but all black male sexuality as dangerous and transgressive (he’d have loved Shakespeare Theatre’s current Tempest for making his point so clearly). The prof goes so far as to say that all black male sex is viewed by whites as “queer,” and as evidence cites near-identical media feeding frenzies over the Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, and Mike Tyson cases. He concludes from this that heterosexual black men who dump on gay black men are only helping to weaken their own position in the eyes of whites, and have a clear interest in championing the cause of their gay black brothers.
Provocative, no? It’s the sort of notion that could, if artfully stated, fuel a whole act. And from its position in the show, it’s clear that that’s the intention. At the premiere, however, the moment was just marking time, as was nearly everything after intermission.
Still, there’s that splendid first half, with its fluid, playful structure, giddy transitions, brisk comedy, illuminating view of a little-known civil rights figure, and evocative use of dance moves (choreographed by Liz Lerman stalwart Andy Torres)more than enough to justify the enthusiasm of first-time co-producers Woolly Mammoth and Washington Project for the Arts. I’d say grab seats now, and be prepared to regard Act 2 as a work in progress. Freeman’s certainly got the smarts to make it clickwho knows, he may already have done soand if you let the show get out of town, you’ll probably be kicking yourself when the reviews from San Francisco filter back.
The Fall of the House of Usher also puts three actors through their paces, though to less choreographed effect. Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror classic begins with Madeline Usher’s silent scream (quite effectively managed in Fraudulent Productions’ mounting at DCAC) and proceeds relatively economically to the collapse of the family manse. It takes perhaps 20 minutes to read the story and about an hour more than that to see the play, which substitutes sound and lighting effects, snatches of postmodern humor, and a few striking images for Poe’s luxurious language.
The images have much to do with casting. Jon Sherman’s ability to express horror with nothing more than an open-mouthed stare was amply demonstrated in Potomac Theatre Project’s Scenes From an Execution a few seasons ago. Put the guy in makeup that suggests a pallor one could only get from years spent indoors, and he’s a pretty ideal Roderick Usher. I’m unfamiliar with the actress who calls herself Aix Wy Zee, but her cascading auburn hair and flashing eyes make her Madeline a 19th-century heroine to contend with. And in doubling as their increasingly unnerved visitor and their smart-ass servant, clarion-voiced Rachel Reed gets to show off some nifty vocal technique.
John Spitzer’s staging, while uneven, certainly has its moments, with perhaps the most vivid being one of terpsichorus interruptus. Madeline has been whirling in a free-form cataleptic frenzy, which her twin brother realizes he must tame if he’s to keep her from hurting herself. So he sweeps her into his arms, gently but firmly imposing the rhythms of a waltz on her spins. After a moment of resistance, there’s a shudder, and she gratefully melts against him in surrender. Lovely, that. And not in the original story.
Nor is an interpolated vampire bit, which probably explains why the evening bills itself as a “reinterpretation” rather than an adaptation. Berkoff’s approach appears to have been to deconstruct the tale’s key moments and then rebuild them to suit his own purposes. Consider what he has done with Poe’s first-person depiction of the visitor’s arrival.
Poe’s version: “Upon my entrance, [Roderick] Usher arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordialityof the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world. A glance, however, at his countenance convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe.”
Roderick: “I greet you with my usual vivacious warmth.”
Visitor: “Which has much in it of the effort of ennui.”
Roderick: “But perfectly sincere.”
This passage is repeated three times by the actors, with Sherman inflecting Roderick’s lines differently each time, thereby making a joke of “perfectly sincere” and sacrificing that half-pity, half-awe stuff entirely.
Elsewhere, Spitzer places more emphasis on the somber, with slo-mo effects and the actors playing architecture often enough that Poe’s conceit about the family being the house and vice versa comes across. A few unexpected shrieks notwithstanding, the evening is rarely as spooky as it is playful. But that’s probably for the best, since FraudProd’s operating aesthetic is low-budget enough that the guignol could never get particularly grand.CP