Manila Envelops

What Ayvazian's skeptical about is risk: She herself, she tells us disarmingly, is uncomfortable about audience participation. But she's married to a man who lives to take risks, to travel to remote places, to enjoy accident-prone activities like backpacking and mountain climbing. Ayvazian would rather stay home with a book. But she's game, and she's spousal. So her narrative covers what goes through her head while standing, terrified, on the high-dive board of a swimming pool at a remote Greek resort hotel. Will she or won't she jump off? Refracted backward and forward in her routine, this tiny moment reveals her entire life, a chronicle of comic disaster.

Clearly, Ayvazian's real tradition is that very American one, the telling of tall tales. I don't know how many of her anecdotes I believe, but they kept me, and the cast around me, in continuous laughter. She tells them all with authority and—given that she's never rehearsed with her ensemble—near-impeccable timing. The other 33 performers were better than okay. And the no-surprise surprise ending, to my surprise, gives the laughter an unexpected deep pathos.


Regina Taylor in Urban Zulu Mambo: dogged poetry
photo: Susan Johann
Regina Taylor in Urban Zulu Mambo: dogged poetry

Details

Dogeaters
By Jessica Hagedorn
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-239-6200

High Dive
By Leslie Ayvazian
Manhattan Class Company
120 West 28th Street
212-727-7765

Urban Zulu Mambo
By Kia Corthron, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ntozake Shange, and Regina Taylor
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street
212-244-7529

Pathos and tragedy, in contrast, are the keynotes of Regina Taylor's solo evening, Urban Zulu Mambo, three pieces by other black women playwrights woven together, somewhat too loosely, with a poem of Taylor's own. Two of the figures Taylor creates, a homeless woman whose sole companion is her dog (via Suzan-Lori Parks), and a mother in mourning, ravaged by cancer (conceived by Kia Corthron), are embattled and battling figures whose endings can only be unhappy. In between comes a woman whose erotic attraction to a man she's never met is the source of soul-shaking torments (graphed by Ntozake Shange). What the three pieces have in common is their writers' resolute individuality.

Parks's slides back and forth from third-to first-person narration, deftly using its impersonal tone to make us perceive the woman without the superficial realism that would make her a trite object of pity. The evening's most fully realized piece, it's also the least surprising. Shange's meditation loops and twists, following the associative track of a poetic mind. Provocative in its ideas, it often seems to be spiraling down to nowhere. Corthron's piece, densest of the three and least accessible, has the most vital energy and tackles social issues most head-on (with statistics, as is Corthron's wont).

Yet within their differences, the pieces have a common refrain, which is the black woman's desire to stand as herself, unencumbered by the burdens—stereotypical, economic, medical—the world puts on her. In this respect, the writers' obstinate individualism amounts to an expression of solidarity. Taylor's poem tries to convey this, but the sound system—murky like many elements in Henry Godinez's production—muffles the effect till you get home and read the program insert. She conveys it better by her performance—taut, specific, unmannered but always marked by her own personality—which in effect makes the three figures facets of one persona. If the result seems less than fulfilling, the authors' other works are easily available for more extended study.


Michael Feingold's review of Kia Corthron's Force Continuum
Michael Feingold's review of Suzan-Lori Parks's In the Blood
James Hannaham's interview with Suzan-Lori Parks

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