Monday, March 15, 2010

ASF World Premier: "Nobody"

After two years in development through the Southern Writers' Project, Richard Aellen's provocative play "Nobody" is being given its World Premier in the Octagon Theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. A nearly full house rose to its feet at the conclusion of Sunday's opening performance. Spilling out into the lobby for a reception, conversations were intense and candid as the audience grappled with the play's themes and challenges...just one of the things that makes live theatre exciting and important.

Set in the late 19th and early part of the 20th Century, "Nobody" traces the lives of two actual African-American vaudevillians, out of work and almost out of hope. Bert Williams [James Bowen] and George Walker [Sean Blake] meet in San Francisco and decide to team up and make their mark in the business. Williams is introspective and wants a career as a "serious" actor, playing Shakespearean roles; Walker is a ladies man and more brash, intending to make a lot of money by dazzling audiences with his quick wit. Neither is quite ready for the reality that faces them: they will only be considered for playing the stereotypical and degrading "Coon" roles; that is, until they decide to play in minstrel shows in burnt-cork Blackface, billing themselves as "Two Real Coons," a choice that leaves few alternatives from then on.

Aellen's script makes good use of historical facts, merging them into his dialogue to establish authenticity, while telling a poignant story of the sacrifices to personal dignity made in order to achieve professional success. -- It is true, for example, that their major success was a production of "In Dahomey", the first major musical on Broadway with an all African-American company, including Paul Laurence Dunbar as lyricist and Will Marian Cook as composer, establishing all of them as household names, with Bert lauded as "the funniest man [white or black] on Broadway". It is true also that Bert was the first and only African-American to perform in the famous "Zeigfeld Follies"...and not in Blackface.

Their lives off-stage where they can drop the facades necessary for performance success help us to comprehend the struggles they faced in a world that regarded them as second-class citizens. Bert's wife Lottie [Erika LaVonn] and George's wife Ada [Angela K. Thomas] provide the strength to pursue the men's goals, often by gentle proddings or occasionally by defiant in-your-face confrontations. It is through them that we see the men's choices, compromises, and achievements even more clearly.

On-stage, they are forever trapped in degrading caricatures; off-stage it is different. They can afford expensive homes and clothes, taking their place in the upwardly mobile African-American community, and George has his pick of women [including a white showgirl named Eva (Margaret Loesser Robinson)] to satisfy his sexual cravings, giving them a sense of success that is, however, not enough, and the source of the conflicts that threaten their professional partnership and their marriages.

As a kind of Greek Chorus, the roles of Tambo and Bones are played by Gerrit VanderMeer and Jonathan C. Kaplan [they play assorted other roles as well] -- white men in Blackface, and a standard minstrel show double-act that exaggerated the behavior of Blacks, showing them to be simple, shuffling dullards and the brunt of degrading jokes. -- What Aellen's script does, however, is to show them as reflections of Williams and Walker and of societal changes; as the two real men achieve success, Tambo's and Bones' Blackface disguise deteriorates and their own confidence in telling jokes dwindles to meaningless dribble.

Performed on a bare set comprised of platforms, and an upstage area that houses a piano [Joel C. Jones] and drumset [Brett Rominger] and a vaudeville stage area, the play allows audiences to focus on character and conflict.

Songs that made the Williams & Walker duo famous are intertwined with the plot to showcase their abilities and to comment on the prejudices against them. "Bon Bon Buddy (the chocolate drop)", the "cakewalk", and "Jonah Man" all contribute to the one dimensional perception of Blacks in America while simultaneously showing us the effect they have on those very people they caricature. Characterizations emerge under Tim Rhoze's capable direction as thoroughly credible human beings caught in situations over which they have little or no control. And the title song -- "Nobody" -- incongruously shows both the stereotype and the determination to not be defined by it.