M Ensemble Tackles Mammy and Other Black Stereotypes

The "straw man" fallacy is pernicious, and it goes something like this: You say, for example, that drug laws ought to be relaxed. I accuse you of promoting the intoxication of children. "But that's not what I've said!" you respond, and indeed it's not — but I'd rather argue against an insane point that you didn't make than the perfectly sane one that you did.

This isn't the kind of thing one thinks about very often when critiquing performance art. Most plays are not debates. But The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman Versus Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae is exactly that. It's a surrealist trial set in the mind of Victoria Dryer (Carey Hart), the short-sighted black woman of the title. She is a modern type, and her courtroom opponents are not. In fact, they are time-traveling slaves. Safreeta (Shelah Marie Rhoulhac) represents the archetypal slave-girl vixen who wanders around the plantation "half-undressed," using her womanly wiles to seduce her master and satisfy her voracious sexual appetites. Mammy Louise (Alexis Lynn Snyder) is the archetypal Mammy — zaftig, kindly, and unlearned, yet suffused with folksy, godly wisdom.

Dryer doesn't like these ladies because they are making it difficult for her to be taken seriously in her work as a corporate whore at a video company. The omnipresence of these media archetypes, she feels, prevents flesh-and-blood black women from rising above type, from being seen as anything other than sex kittens or Aunt Jemima bottles.

Fair enough. Images of black women in the popular media are awful, and they were even more awful in 1999, when The Trial was first produced. (Though I'm pretty sure the media's negative portrayals of black folk have more to do with crime and gunplay than slavery.) But Dryer isn't merely filing suit against the media's representations of slaves, and herein lies the play's biggest, though far from only, problem: Dryer is suing the slaves themselves; the actual men and women who bled beneath a master's whip and lived without hope of freedom. These are the human beings on whom she blames her problems, and she is therefore of the opinion that images of slaves ought to be banned from popular entertainment, media, and art, forever. History, she believes, is something best forgotten.

It's a wild concept, but The Trial is not an avant-garde investigation of the weight of history and its terrible, but necessary, burden. Maybe that or something like it was Dryer's original idea, but if so, the complexity of her project got away from her about three pages into the script. Rather than exploring our buried (and transracial) desire to delete history and inhabit a world free of historical debts, she instead used her play to make the following, disjointed point: Black people shouldn't forget slavery because slavery wasn't as much fun as the movies make it seem, and shame on you, you short-sighted, over-achieving corporatist black women, for suggesting otherwise.

But I'm pretty sure there is no mob of short-sighted, over-achieving corporatist black women trying to burn books by Frederick Douglass or set fire to the master tapes of Roots. Nor is there a conspiracy to make slavery look like a barrel'o'laffs. So The Trial is little more than a straw-man argument — one that is terribly unsure of what it attempts to accomplish.

How much of that is the author's fault and how much falls on director Lowell Williams in the M Ensemble's production is anyone's guess. What's certain is that The Trial is unfocused. Both the prosecutor (Tihirah Taliaferro) and the defense attorney (Yaya Browne) holler huge, undifferentiated gobs of words at their witnesses, creating an atmosphere of diffuse anger that seems to have nowhere to go. Unbidden, they yell, and yell, and no line is textured very differently from any other. Browne at least has a lovely speaking voice (it's the sound velvet might make, if velvet could purr), and delivers her monologues on slave history with authority and nuance. Taliaferro, alas, is pretty much awful throughout: Everything about her portrayal is stagey and overmannered.

Their portrayals hover around the average competency level found in this production. Even the luminous Carolyn Johnson, as The Honorable Mable Wilson, looks like she's phoning it in. Rhoulhac, as the fiery Safreeta, probably has a real future in the biz if she can learn to project her voice while speaking as well as she screams — but until then, many of her lines die on the air before hitting the front row. Snyder looks wonderful as strong, dignified, and largely silent Mammy Louise, but her composure disappears the moment she opens her mouth. She doesn't seem to know what to do with her hands, face, or even the pitch of her voice. I'm guessing she hasn't done much acting before.

Well-meaning actors who haven't acted before, directed by someone who hasn't done much directing endeavoring to produce a play by a writer who's never written so ambitiously before: That's what The Trial seems like -- amateur blocking mistakes compounding amateur diction that comes from a script that just can't figure out what to do with itself.

The one, brilliant, and even transcendent exception to the general mediocrity is Keith C. Wade, who begins the play as a bailiff and, by the end, has played a white movie producer, a black film executive, a white slave owner, and a white slave-owner's wife. (The first three are witnesses being called to the stand, but he performs the latter role on video, looking and sounding hilariously like a cross between Divine and Miss Piggy.) Momentarily scandalized by the appearance of a black man in crude plaster whiteface, turning in a scathing but in no way stereotypical portrayal of a yuppie California Caucasian, I was soon swept up in the fun of it. The offensiveness of the gag was ameliorated by Wade's dynamic, razor-sharp characterizations. If people of any color are going to make art about race in America, they should be as honest, as rude, and as alive to humor and surprise as Wade is in this show. He alone makes The Trial worth the price of admission, and then some.

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