Truth or Dare

Concurrent with Black History month, Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood presents Sandra Fenichel Asher's A Woman Called Truth, a staged biography of Sojourner Truth. Asher has fashioned an amalgam of dramatization, Sojourner's own words, and period spirituals to tell the story of the inspirational nineteenth-century activist. The play opens at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, with Sojourner about to deliver her stirring "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. With encouragement from the other characters to "tell your story -- it must be told," the action flashes back to Sojourner's girlhood as a slave, then takes us with her from master to master. When she finally gains her freedom, she challenges a fierce slave owner in court for the rights to her son -- and wins. Her son eventually dies at sea, she receives a divine message, assumes her free name, and takes to the road, telling her story "to any and all who would listen."

The production is sincere and powerful in places by virtue of Sojourner's life and her own words. Born a slave around 1797, she suffered all the misery of that condition until New York state law granted her freedom in 1827, at which time she was reunited with two of her children. She worked as a domestic until 1843, when she rejected her slave name and began to travel the U.S., preaching against slavery and for women's rights. Tall and powerfully built, Sojourner was hardly the image of demure nineteenth-century womanhood, and a rumor started that she was, in fact, a "Negro man" who spoke about women's rights. It's said that she bared her breasts during one of her appearances to disprove the rumor. Uneducated and illiterate, she was nonetheless a charismatic speaker.

Playwright Asher presents a credible tableau of nineteenth-century populist political thought, which reached people through traveling lecturers such as Sojourner Truth and fellow abolitionists and suffragists, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Susan B. Anthony. Through enactments of Sojourner's personal experiences, the script also catalogues the travesties of slavery, from the obvious (being overworked and beaten) to the more insidious (being auctioned on the block as if you were livestock, being separated from family, and being forced to assume your master's name). In the intimate space of Florida Playwrights' Theatre, face to face with seven actors, it is impossible not to be moved by such material.

But Angela Thomas hasn't directed the show as much as choreographed it, working in a restrained, almost dirgelike manner, as if the intensity of the material were too much to handle. Sojourner's narration, the episodic dramatization of events, and the songs that are meant to cohere the narrative emotionally tend to be informational rather than dramatic; likewise the director's intent seems to be to educate the audience rather than to explore the depth of experience endured by the characters. For example, wonderful spirituals such as "Wade in the Water" and "Someone's Calling My Name" are rendered in a disappointing, middle-of-the-road way. Well sung by fine voices, particularly William Adkins's and Crystal Israel's, these versions are tinged with sadness. Yet they never dip and soar as spirituals at their most powerful should.

Hardy Louihis is pained and broken as Sojourner's abandoned and long-suffering son, Peter. And Karlene Tomlinson's Sojourner is animated and spunky, evolving from a naive and trusting young girl to a tenacious, stubborn woman with an innate sense of how to make the law of the land work for her and her people. Tomlinson's performance is most memorable and inspiring when she insists that "I feel the power of the nation in me" and that "the law is for everyone." After all, in Sojourner's time, laws based on the declaration that all men are created equal meant just that -- all men were equal, and white, property-owning men at that. But Sojourner Truth proved that African Americans and women had rights under those laws, too. The show resonates with that accomplishment.

Sojourner Truth was driven to tell her story to anyone who would listen. Bernie, the ailing grandfather in Gary Richards's Dividends, now playing at Brian C. Smith's Off Broadway theater, seems determined to take his story with him to the grave. However, he's being badgered by his struggling artist grandson, Neal, to reveal his past so that Neal can make sense of his own dilemmas. "Life," Bernie finally confides to his pesky grandson, "should be lived backwards." Having said this, Bernie then details his vision of the stages of existence, beginning with retirement and ending with the blissful luxury of floating in amniotic fluid. It's a wacky, magical piece of writing that turns our expectations upside down and lets us see the world from an entirely new perspective; it's also an anomaly in an otherwise sentimental comedy, rife with homespun philosophy. The rehashing of Jewish family love and conflict is illuminated only by Woody Romoff's endearing performance as a cute grandpa who is impossible to hate, even if he and the play he rode in on are as corny as heck.

When 83-year-old Bernie first lands in the hospital, his entire family flocks to his side. But as his stay there continues, only wife Bessie (Harriet Oser) and Neal (Larry Belkin) come to visit. Over endless rounds of a card game that seem to loosen Bernie's tongue, Neal learns that his grandfather never had a bar mitzvah. The rite of passage that should have happened when Bernie was thirteen years old was put off for the next week, month, or year because the family was too busy being poor. Now Neal is determined that his grandfather get the chance to become a man. Through official Jewish ritual, a second chance occurs after 70 years have passed, at age 83. Bernie, much to his surprise, realizes he wants to pursue it.

At its best, Dividends is a celebration of ordinary life and a tribute to Bessie and Bernie's almost 60-year marriage, modeled, the program notes, on playwright Richards's own grandparents. Using one generation to set the other in relief, the script comments on careers, compromise, commitment, and the modern tendency to talk about everything as opposed to accepting quietly what can't be changed. But Brian Smith's direction flattens out whatever life the mostly canned script might offer. Repetitive devices such as Neal speaking directly to the audience and Bessie and Bernie moving to the side of the stage for flashbacks get old quickly. And the stage is cluttered with three sets at the same time, including Neal's studio, complete with bad paintings on its walls. I mean really bad paintings, a quarter step from paint on velvet. No wonder the guy can't get a show of his work in Manhattan.

I may not have been enthralled with the production, but the audience loved it. In fact I felt that I was participating in a new brand of interactive theater: The audience talked to the actors as if they knew them, answered questions being posed on-stage out loud from their seats, translated the Yiddish for everyone's benefit, and commented on how the show related to their own lives. (When Bernie said his father-in-law didn't like him, the woman in front of me stage-whispered, "My mother-in-law hated me, too.") What can I say? This brand of nostalgic theater does not ask hard enough questions for my taste, but it gives certain theatergoers a slice of their past that seems much-appreciated.

Stage Notes
A not-to-be-missed series of theater events is about to descend on Miami. The Theatre League of South Florida and the Writers' Alliance are hosting two workshops by award-winning playwright and Dramatists Guild member Jeffrey Sweet: "The Craft of the Working Playwright," Saturday, February 25, noon to 5:00 p.m., at New Theatre; and "Improvisation for the Dramatist," Sunday, February 26, 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Coconut Grove Playhouse. Considered among the best in (and about) the business, the workshops are open to writers, composers, lyricists, actors, directors, and critics. Actor-writer Susan Murray, co-founder of Miami's Performing Arts Network, has taken Sweet's workshops and says they're "a must, an inspiration." Call Writers' Alliance coordinator Susan Westfall at 361-1585 for details and reservations.

Sweet also will lead a free discussion on writing for the theater at a "Playwrights' Town Meeting" on Thursday, February 23, from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. at the Center for the Fine Arts. Westfall notes with excitement that this is the first national collaboration between South Florida and New York's Dramatists Guild. She also hints that playwright Edward Albee might be joining the town meeting. And to round out the week, Sweet's play The Value of Names opens locally at New Theatre on Friday, February 24.


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