History Lesson

New Theatre pieces together Cooper's sprawling mess of a play

The sad and seamy underbelly of the mythical American dream is not a place of hope.

Nor is it a world that is easily described, though New Theatre's powerful production of Day of Reckoning makes a scattered attempt at embracing quite a bit of America's historical landscape: Ku Klux Klan rallies, slavery and its aftermath, burning crosses, forbidden love, shameless hate, interracial relations, voting rights, worker's rights, bloody labor struggles.

If all of this sounds like too much, it is.

Keith Cassidy (left) and Tara Vodihn in Day of 
Reckoning
Courtesy of Eileen Suarez
Keith Cassidy (left) and Tara Vodihn in Day of Reckoning

Details

Through March 26. Written by Melody Cooper. Directed by Ricky J. Martinez. With Tara Vodihn, Keith Cassidy, Brandon Morris, and Karina Fernandez.
New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909, www.new-theatre.org

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Melody Cooper's historical drama treads on a minefield of issues, with lackluster results. However, Ricky J. Martinez's fearless direction and a cast headed by Tara Vodihn and Keith Cassidy come close to making a case for Cooper's sprawling mess of a play.

Day of Reckoning is based on factual events in the lives of Lucy and Albert Parsons. The daughter of slaves, Lucy is a woman of color, though not of the darkest hue. She bristles at being labeled a Negro, passing herself off as a mixture of Mexican and American Indian, and calls herself Lucy Gonzalez. But this is still not white enough for post-Civil War Texas. In the play, Cooper emphasizes the heroine's denial of her African-American roots: "Even after you're free, slavery is part of you," confesses Lucy early in Act One, "like an ink stain." In 1870 Lucy meets future husband Albert Parsons. He is a former Confederate soldier turned unlikely civil rights crusader agitating in Waco, Texas, to allow black men to register to vote. That women were never included in early voting-rights efforts is one of the many ironies that Cooper, to her credit, exposes with relish in Day of Reckoning.Staying largely true to factual events — though emphasized perhaps to excess — the plot soon thickens, and Lucy and Albert are forced out of Texas because interracial marriage is forbidden.

Act Two traces the couple's real-life drama after their 1873 relocation to Chicago, where they later earn their place in labor history. Albert works as a printer for the Chicago Times, though his involvement in strikes results in his being fired and blacklisted in the Chicago printing trade. Lucy works with him, eventually publishing the labor newsletter The Alarm, an anarchist weekly, and agitating for the workers in the major railroad strike of 1877. Their demands seem quaint by today's standards. Within a few years 350,000 workers are on strike across the United States, including more than 40,000 in Chicago. For these exploited workers, violence becomes a part of the struggle, and a riot breaks out.

The Chicago conflict reaches a brutal peak when police fire at striking workers during a demonstration and an unknown figure throws a bomb that kills a cop. With no real suspects, police round up eight known radicals, including Albert, who is not even in the vicinity at the time of the incident. He and the others are later charged with murder, and eventually Albert is tried, convicted, and hanged. Evidence later surfaces suggesting not only their innocence but also that the governor signed execution papers despite knowing they might not have been guilty.

In the play's version of events, Lucy is unhinged by Albert's death, though it fails to distract her from her cause. However, she neglects their daughter, Lulu, who later dies of tuberculosis. Their son, Albert Jr., suffers a worse fate, interned by his mother in an insane asylum to prevent him from joining the navy. She never visits him. In real life, as in the play, Lucy Parsons dies in an accidental fire.

For all of Day of Reckoning's time-shifting cleverness, the plot unfolds with a straightforward, cable-movie efficiency. The prologue is out of time: The children confront Lucy, demanding to know the truth about their lives, yet immediately afterward, the narrative becomes linear. Even the children's constant interjections do little to change the play's didactic, traditional, and preachy structure. Act One is set in Waco, and Act Two is in Chicago. The facts fly as if the playwright never met an index card she didn't like. The story indeed is appalling, all the more so for being true, but agitprop is not drama.

Still there is truth in the performances. Day of Reckoning is anything but subtle, but director Martinez takes to the playwright's melodramatic excesses with a vengeance and showcases his actors to flattering advantage. It would be tough to claim the play is successful as art, but as an exercise in performance and direction, it is definitely juicy. Tara Vodihn, who resembles a young Shelley Duvall with a touch of Flashdance's Jennifer Beals, is splendid. Her shy yet determined flirtations with Albert when they meet on the street under the Klan's watchful eyes would alone be worth a trip to New Theatre. Her loud, raw desperation in the face of her husband's doom is gripping beyond what the script might deserve.

Keith Cassidy is heartbreaking as Albert, an open wound of contradictions destined to remain unhealed. Southern guilt, class resentment, personal frustration, and even true love are difficult to write about, but even tougher to play. Cooper's Albert is too much, but Cassidy's makes sense of the writing. It is a measured, intelligent, and touching characterization. Brandon Morris, given a single pathetic note to play as Albert Jr., can be forgiven for playing just that and playing it well. Only Karina Fernandez as Lulu seems underdirected, and it was a miscalculation to have the young actress additionally play the mime role of a racist customer at Albert's store in Waco. Act Two's climactic moment, which involves a letter from a dead father read by his youngest child, ought to pack the cheap wallop the playwright obviously intended. It doesn't here. Then again, by that point, this production has gone well beyond the call of duty in making Cooper's play work.

 
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