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Produced by Source Theater at the National Museum of Women in the Arts to February 12

Voces del Exilio/Voices of Exile

Directed by Abel López

At Gala Hispanic Theater to February 5

Wouldn’t you know it—the one word Source Theater omits from its joint title for Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ one-acts, Snowfall and Rhythm and Blues, is the word that hints at the writer’s chief strength. Marketed as “Snowfall and the Blues,” what these uneven but intriguing playlets demonstrate most fully is their author’s command of the sounds of verbal intercourse—the staccato speech patterns that denote anger, the languorous vowels that suggest condescension, the “setup-two-three” delayed beat of punch lines, and the unaccented hiss of frustration. The things she says, you’ll likely have heard before; the way she says them is ear-catchingly fresh.

Both Snowfall, which is an agitprop romance set in academia, and Rhythm and Blues, a smarter, looser, culture-clash comedy set on the dance floor—were workshopped at Source’s summer theater festivals, with the latter winning the 1993 fest’s literary prize for Jennings, who is an assistant professor of theater at American University. Each play concerns itself with middle-class African-Americans and their prickly relationships with a predominantly Eurocentric culture—a white/black dichotomy that is suggested by Source’s joint title. But since Jennings merely illustrates tensions without particularly heightening them through drama, the theme is by far the least interesting aspect of the plays.

The curtain raiser is about Judith (Eleanore Tapscott), an Afrocentric prof whose clumsy attempts to become the sort of buddy and mentor to students that she always longed for during her own college days leads to friction with Jason, the campus’ putative Uncle Tom. If the audience has any doubt about where things are headed between these two, it’s dispelled the moment Jason (S. Robert Morgan) laughs at the sophomoric final adjective his adversary chooses for a litany of his faults. He is, claims Judith, “arrogant, pompous, misog ynist, bourgeois, and creepy.” Proving that his image may be muddied, but his linguistic sophistication isn’t, he then dispenses with each charge. Murky waters, he suggests, can also run deep, and before long Judith is conceding that he may, in fact, be the more canny and sophisticated of the two of them. Certainly he’s got a better line of patter when it comes to being an advocate for minority students at an essentially racist institution.

As Judith pushes militancy and Jason preaches guerrilla tactics, it becomes clear that the author’s sympathies lie squarely with the latter approach. This qualifies as curious, since it’s also clear that if Jennings had followed the advice she’s put in Jason’s mouth (“This is the ’90s, woman, you gotta do your thing for the race and shut the fuck up about it”), she’d have written a less didactic, more interesting play.

Still, even as things now stand, there’s something compelling about the way Snowfall‘s chief antagonists score points by analyzing each other’s speech patterns. Morgan’s trashily flamboyant Jason is forever being called on the carpet for what Judith regards as his tendency to spout “pimpspeak” (a sort of arrogant condescension toward her as a black woman). And turnabout being fair play, he gives Judith hell for the bourgeois accent that effectively labels her a “doctor’s daughter from Jersey.” None of this is terribly subtle as staged by Jennifer Nelson, though in fairness, designer Jeff Guzick’s decidedly un-academic-looking, overfurnished office may be cramping her style. Cam Magee and Christa L. Rivers manage to be reasonably empathetic in thankless, exposition-laden supporting roles as, respectively, Judith’s lesbian office-mate and a thoroughly assimilated black student.

Magee is better after intermission in Rhythm and Blues, where she plays Ann, a dippily free-spirited white chick who thinks that by dancing to the songs of the Temptations, she’s somehow tapping into the soul of soul music. Actually, the whole evening takes a turn for the better after intermission, becoming both more lighthearted and more theatrically sophisticated as it deals with the “whose music is it anyway?” question. When Ann’s terpsichorially challenged date, Charlie (Michael Replogle), suggests that African-Americans might resent her dancing to “their” music, she tries out her “I’ve got a right to dance the blues” rhetoric on a black orthopedist who’s sitting nearby. Joe (Morgan) is initially polite, but eventually Ann gets on his nerves and he shreds her arguments, at which point Joe’s lover Bessie (Tapscott) arrives and tries to smooth things over, with mixed results.

Bald as this no doubt sounds in synopsis, it’s engagingly played—which is to say, danced—to a series of free-form, lyric-studded, stream-of-consciousness riffs that must have been hell to choreograph. Each of the four principals has been given a different movement style by Darryl V. Jones, who has somehow seen to it that Magee’s hilarious, potentially hip-dislocating gyrations and Replogle’s athletic bouncing are modifiable so that they can fit with the sensuous interplay between Tapscott and Morgan. Nelson’s direction appears to have been freed up by the open stage Guzick gives her the second time, and she makes sure patrons hear the relationship between the music and the rhythms of Jennings’ unself-consciously poetic dialogue. When the lines aren’t going for laughs—which they frequently are—the effect can be downright hypnotic. Speaking at one point about how life is “like a lullaby/that has gone awry,” Tapscott seems almost to have crossed over into the quasi-spiritual territory of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoems.

It makes sense that Gala Hispanic Theater has chosen a bilingual title for its performance-poetry assemblage, Voces del Exilio/Voices of Exile. Only a little more than half the evening is performed in English as well as Spanish, which means audience members who—like me—are essentially monolingual get to taste a bit of the linguistic frustration that exile imposed on the evening’s Hispanic authors.

The show begins with some very brief untranslated poems by Spain’s Miguel De Unamuno (each introduces a member of the cast), an aggressively fiery solo tango (danced by Argentine choreographer Graciela Quiroga), and Uruguayan Mario Benedetti’s haunting ballad “Te quiero” (sung pretty damn gloriously by Jorge Anaya and María Isolina), before a word of English is spoken. Then, at about the moment when English-only patrons will start reaching for their coats, a poem that has just been performed in Spanish is performed a second time, quite differently, in English, and director Abel López’s conception of the disorienting effect of exile comes clearly into focus.

The poems, songs, and dramatic sketches he’s compiled for this two-hour evening change in oddly unpredictable ways when they’re translated. An elegy about a square with flaming orange trees is gentle and a little sad in Spanish, but turns robust when rendered by another performer in English. A performance choice? Certainly. But after a few more pieces about church services, children, bar patrons, and muddle-headed intellectuals have been similarly juxtaposed, you realize how much the sounds of words have to do with the meanings we attach to them, and how tricky translating even the simplest notions can be. For writers who live in exile, and who choose to write in another language than their own, the sense of separation is palpable.

López has mostly chosen works about exile by authors who lived in exile, which makes the uplifting, eloquently hopeful tone of the enterprise surprising. Some of the skits (particularly one about a gay film producer and the bitchy actress who unrequitedly adores him) are acidly comic; others, like Mercedes Sosa’s eloquent anthem, “Adiós Argentina,” are defiant and hauntingly beautiful. The spoken performances are strong and heartfelt, while Anaya’s musicianship and Isolina’s deep, full-voiced singing are pretty much a show in themselves. If the staging sometimes verges on cliché (cloudlike cutouts to represent the “disappeared” victims of military dictatorships), it makes up for most lapses with an inventive sense of play and the clever use of minimal props and movement.