Race's long-shot winner, Karen Stephens
Race's long-shot winner, Karen Stephens

Strong Star, Tired Message

Karen Stephens is such an appealing performer that I wish her one-person show were as compelling as she is. Called Out of the Box, the show is billed as a multimedia event that looks at "societal and racial parameters through the life experiences of a black American female and her struggle for acceptance of self and others." A big order to be sure. With her show's title, Stephens means to evoke the notion of race as an overwhelming influence, as well as the idea that life would be easier if more people could operate "outside the box," not seeing black women as stereotypes but recognizing them for who they are. The result, unfortunately, is a well-executed but generic performance piece that holds no surprise.

In Box, Stephens, a South Florida native who has proven herself a considerable talent at the Florida Stage (most recently in last season's Rocket Man), weaves biographical tidbits and social history into a monologue with dance. She recalls that when she was young, black children teased her about her light skin, calling her "yellow pepper." White children called her "nigger." She tells us about beloved family members, her first day of kindergarten, her Pebbles doll. While she relates her life story, we see slides of class photos, report cards, and casual snapshots on a screen downstage. As she moves from one life period to another, Stephens dons clothing from a costume trunk placed midstage. The hourlong theater piece is punctuated by segments of dance -- ballet, Charleston, hip-hop, and more -- in which Stephens deftly articulates gradations of hurt, anger, lust, pride, intelligence, and silliness with her facial expressions and her inventive dance vocabulary.

But even with all these tools at her disposal, Stephens barely limns the depth of her subject. Her writing isn't strong enough to carry her ideas, and while the material is often intensely personal, it rarely conveys her as an individual. Indeed Richard Crowell's set (a backdrop made from a blown-up reproduction of a federal employment form, replete with boxes to check for racial identity) suggests more about the political complexities of race in the modern world than does any of the performance elements. (One scarcely used prop, a brown wig on a Caucasian dummy head, begs to be exploited.) "Who passed out the race card?" Stephens asks at one point, referring to the furor surrounding the OJ trial, as though this line hasn't been on the lips of op-ed writers for nearly a decade.


Out of the Box

Presented by the Florida Stage at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S Olive St., West Palm Beach, 561-585-3433.

Written and performed by Karen Stephens. Through November 29.

I suspect that Stephens, like many a talented black female performer before her, created Box in part to exorcise emotional demons but also to facilitate her own career. There's nothing wrong with that. Given the scarcity of interesting parts for black women (and the still-lagging acceptance of colorblind casting), an actress often needs to create her own material in order to have steady work. Just ask Regina Taylor or Vinnette Carroll, two black actresses who have made their marks, divided by several decades, with one-woman shows. Whoopi Goldberg, to use a high-profile example, might still be waiting tables without the unforgettable series of monologues that propelled her to fame in the Eighties. White actresses from Julie Harris and Lily Tomlin to Julia Sweeney have done the same. To sit and wait for a casting agent or a playwright to provide complex roles is to invite unemployment.

Like the heroines of these success stories, Stephens is an electric force onstage. Unlike them she can't claim writing as her first strength. I'm recommending that she find a collaborator. The show needs someone who could rewrite large portions, shaping them to fit around the dance sections, and who could cut the psychobabble about "overcoming the numbness" Stephens feels toward the white world. When it works, Out of the Box stirs up a formidable tension between the images conjured by what we see in the slides or hear in the words, and the frenetic, beautiful movements of her dancing. Too much of the piece, however, features dance segments that are overlong or too tenuously connected to the subject at hand.

In trying to tackle the multifaceted issue of race, Stephens fails either to personalize it or to thrust new facts, observations, or arguments in front of us. In the most winning part of the show, the beginning, Stephens appears onstage as the embodiment of the spirit she says she was before she was born. Wearing a sparkly white choir robe, she converses with the Great Spirit, accusing it of making her the butt of a huge cosmic joke by sending her into the world as a black woman. "You will live in a male-dominated society and be discriminated against because of the color of your skin," the Great Spirit tells her. We've heard this imprecation so many times before, from so many mouths, that it no longer has any power. Neither does Stephens's life story -- that of a sensitive child raised by a loving extended family, who grows up to be an actress.

Stephens is an intelligent performer, aware of the world around her. It would surprise me to learn that she hasn't read or seen productions of George C. Wolfe's groundbreaking The Colored Museum (1986) or Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play (1993), two explosive works that delved into the dangers of racial stereotyping and the evil of American racism and expressed them in bold new theatrical forms. Their influence, however, is nowhere to be found. Neither are the cutthroat observations of someone like comedian Chris Rock, whose post-Columbine routines have included jokes about being afraid to get into an elevator with white teens.

Unlike these bolder artists, Stephens has filled a bulletin board outside the theater with articles on hate crimes, apparently hoping that theatergoers will read them on the way in and make the connection between the headlines and what they see onstage. In a better work these newspaper clippings would be superfluous. Yet Stephens's bland social aphorisms are the weakest element of Out of the Box. "We tell our children 'Just say no,'" she laments, "when we haven't tried to teach them the meaning of the word."

When the actress does infuse her story with the sorts of revelations that could make it memorable, she backs away from examining them. We hear snatches of a letter from the white boyfriend she had during her college years, but we never learn how a serious biracial relationship affected her. She invokes the names of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers without explaining who these civil rights-era martyrs were or why they mattered or still matter to her. She refers to the racial segregation of Palm Beach but doesn't explore it. Oddly the most potent moment in Out of the Box occurs as the actress revisits the mid-'60s assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, then links them to the violence she witnessed around her as a child. Noting that her neighborhood was not immune to murder, she thinks out loud: "Grandma says we're not even supposed to say the word hate. But I feel it." If only she had more power to make us feel it, too.


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