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Effective as it is, the kaleidoscopic opening of OyamO’s I Am a Man at Arena Stage only hints at the muscularity of the evening to follow. As the title bleeds to red on a cross-shaped screen above the stage, a series of quasi-iconic tableaux flow seamlessly into one another: a blues singer revolving at a microphone, a Memphis bar rocking to the beat of “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the screams of sanitation workers being crushed to death in a freak accident, the roar of a fiery funeral oration that becomes a rabble-rousing speech in a union hall.
Before he even gets to anything that could reasonably be termed dialogue, director Donald Douglass has already placed patrons in a world where events move faster than comprehension. Appropriately so, for the events in question are the ones that led to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s presence on a Lorraine Motel balcony one tragic spring morning some three decades ago.
The year is 1968, and although change is in the air, Memphis isn’t keeping up. The death of two garbagemen, killed in the back of their truck when they sought refuge there from a downpour, has put a spotlight on dismal work conditions in the city. But local union organizer T.O. Jones (Wendell Wright) can’t even get Memphis’ mayor (Henry Strozier) to recognize him as the workers’ representative. A wildcat strike seems the best way to get the city’s attention, and it does just that, especially once local pastors call in King, and AFSCME (American Federation of State and City Municipal Employees) decides the strike’s outcome is crucial to its campaign to unionize the South.
If the play concentrated as much on the big picture as some of its characters do, it would quickly turn into a polemic. But OyamO’s approach is gratifyingly domestic. Almost as soon as Jones has been established as a caring, committed union man, an argument erupts between him and Alice Mae (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), the wife he’s neglecting in order to do right by his workers. The showdown could make a simple point about personal priorities, but the author doesn’t settle for that. When thrown out of his house by a woman who clearly adores him, Jones instinctively reaches into his pocket to offer her his last dollar. The gesture smacks of the complexity of real life, and lends the character a credibility he’d never have if he spent the whole play in the union hall.
That’s fortunate, because author OyamO must spend a good deal of the play laying out the specifics of larger battles involving factions, none of whose members seem to be on the same side for more than a few moments. Coming to the aid of Jones are various clergymen, each with his own agenda and message; a reluctant NAACP chapter that sees the union organizer as a bumbler; black militants who view him as “a righteous warrior”; and New York AFSCME leaders who can’t quite get a handle on this loose cannon who doesn’t seem to want their advice or help, but without whom they haven’t got a cause to champion.
The other side is equally at odds with itself, with the extremes pretty well staked out by a white councilmember who chooses to march with King and a racist but pragmatic mayor who knows prejudice firsthand, having renounced his Jewish heritage to pass as an Episcopalian with voters.
Douglass choreographs stage movements so that all the principals seem involved in a ballet of ideological thrusts, feints, and parries, with each owning a portion of the landscape and trying to extend his territory. This is the same director who created Project, a life-based Chicago musical that played briefly at the Eisenhower Theater a few seasons ago featuring mostly nonprofessional performers from the Cabrini-Green housing complex. What Project had going for it was energy bordering on ferocity and a certain elemental truth that came from having people telling their own story. Working with pros in I Am a Man, Douglass can create far subtler effects without sacrificing strength.
And does he ever. It would be hard to overstate the vigor he brings to Arena’s company. The Fichandler hasn’t felt so vibrant and alive in several seasons, with some company members so rejuvenated they’re barely recognizable. During the first act, I scribbled in my program that whoever was playing Jones resembled a more forceful Wendell Wright, only to discover at intermission that Wright himself was playing the part. Teagle F. Bougere and D’Monroe are at once threatening and very funny as militant hotheads who vow to protect Jones and his family “by whatever means necessary.” You can almost see the wheels spinning in the mayor’s head as Strozier calculates and recalculates how best to maintain the status quo. And when he confronts Lee Sellars, whose uproariously outspoken Jewish labor organizer operates as the play’s liberal conscience, there’s an almost classical quality to the way all hell breaks loose in verbiage so precisely calibrated it might as well be in rhymed couplets. At the play’s edges, Ellis Foster is wonderfully nuanced as a black councilman who doesn’t want the situation to get out of hand even if it means compromising his constituency, Jeffrey V. Thompson preaches up a storm as a minister who knows exactly how far his flock will bend to the winds of change, and Olu Dara, as Bluesman, underscores each shift in the emotional weather with sardonic vocals. Actually, there isn’t anyone on stage who isn’t lending capable support.
All this is in the service of dialogue that’s as robustly theatrical as it is down-to-earth. OyamO is a playwright who can make arguments bristle with passion and invest simple statements with unexpected eloquence. The titular declaration is a case in point. Jones bellows, “I am a man” when insulted by the mayor during an early sequence in the play—the only one in which he is moved to physical violence. But as the strike wears on and responsibility weighs heavier on his weary shoulders, he grows increasingly distressed at his inability to control the events he’s put in motion. “I am,” the author has him lament much later, “just a man,” the addition of a single word summing up not merely a new mind-set, but the entire arc of a supremely powerful play.
The phrase “I am a human being” may not sound terribly different, but its effect certainly is in the final moments of Studio Theater’s rampaging, radically reconceived version of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. The company has been trumpeting the production as the centerpiece of its 1994-95 “Rhinoceros Season,” and even went so far as to commission an entirely new translation from professors George Moskos and Allen Kuharski of Swarthmore College. The work has paid off handsomely in a show that starts out hilarious and gradually transforms itself into a too-specific, but nonetheless engrossing cautionary tale about the perils of unblinking conformity.
Ionesco penned this chronicle—of a nebbishy Everyman named Berenger who realizes with mounting horror that all his friends and co-workers are turning into rhinos—as a metaphor for the convulsive rise of fascism in Europe. Much produced in the early ’60s (Zero Mostel starred on Broadway, Lawrence Olivier in London) but slowly slipping into disfavor as the theater’s passion for absurdism ran its course, it has rarely been performed in recent years. A Studio press release says the current production is only the second professional American mounting of the play in a decade.
My own memories of the play, which I last saw performed in college nearly a quarter of a century ago, are indistinct, but I feel reasonably confident in saying director Joy Zinoman and her company must be having more fun with it than was possible with the original translation. Ionesco’s wit is of a peculiarly brittle variety, and usually comes across as more than a trifle arch in performance. Moskos and Kuharski have come up with a loose, vernacular script that casually incorporates all sorts of contemporary jargon (“Don’t ask, don’t tell”), lots of name-dropping (Versace, Armani), and even “Contract With America” jokes. There are a few too many of the latter, but given the convulsive rise of Republicanism in the last few months and the attitude of Congress regarding arts funding, perhaps that’s inevitable. In any event, the show isn’t the least bit inaccessible.
Stylized from the first moments—a framing sequence involving two little girls, a rhino puppet, and jokes about hating French (the language from which Rhinoceros has been translated)—the show begins in bright colors and gradually fades to bilious shades of green. Actress Brigid Cleary makes her first entrance in a turquoise suit so starched and angular you worry that she’ll puncture everyone she approaches, while J. Fred Shiffman is nattily attired in lavender from his suitcoat to his socks. Shiffman plays Berenger’s fashion-conscious best friend and the first of the show’s principals to exhibit what the others call “rhinocerotic” tendencies. Deliciously unhinged even before he starts munching on house plants, snorting heavily, and charging everything that moves, he’s clearly having a ball. Eventually, he turns into a pachyderm that somehow resembles Tim Curry on steroids.
And he’s just the most animated member of a cast that seems entirely made up of three-dimensional cartoons. Lawrence Redmond gets to do some snorting of his own as a lawyer apologist for those with rhinoceritis. Tom Kearney is a dimwitted joy, both as a waiter who can’t syllogize and as a writer who can’t type. Cleary takes giddiness to undreamed-of heights when tickled. Harry A. Winter doesn’t have much to do as a café owner, but does it with winning panache. And Holly Rudkin is appealing as Berenger’s goofy girlfriend.
Surrounded by these colorful weirdos, TJ Edwards might easily have seemed colorless as Berenger, especially since he’s attired in the only bland shades Mary Ann Powell’s witty costume design allows anywhere onstage. Instead, he’s the life of the party, climbing the poles of Russell Metheny’s unfinished knotty pine setting, barricading his windows against rhinocerotic attacks, hurling himself through doorways, and holding his own even when Shiffman careens around the stage, turning greener by the second.
That gradual tinting is accomplished through lighting wizardry by Daniel MacLean Wagner, and the power of suggestion, which is after all what the play is about. Zinoman has wisely opted not to go with elaborate masks where miming will do the trick just as effectively, and more theatrically. My one real cavil is that she could have been similarly oblique with the rhino-Republican analogy, so that the show would feel more universal. The first Newt-onian reference is funny and succinct, but as the political jests pile on (“We’ll give it a hundred days”) they start to seem too easy, and the neutral jokes (“pardon our dust; under rhinovation”) get bigger laughs.
Still, these are quibbles. For the most part, Rhinoceros works astonishingly well, especially for a work that had virtually been given up for dead.