The bark of John Henry Redwoods title, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, is worse than his plays bite. A melodrama to its core, Redwoods latest traffics in the kind of stilted rhetoric, crude plotting, and simplistic morality that have come to define the genre. Yet it would be unfair to dismiss the work for its retro dramaturgy. Redwood tackles an inherently melodramatic subject in the history of race relations in this countrythe impunity with which white men raped and victimized black women in the Jim Crow-era South. Heres a situation where the good and bad guys really are as distinguishable as, well, black and white. Unfortunately, memorable drama derives its strength from the grayareasa location from which Redwoods characters are still unfairly segregated.
Mattie Cheeks (Elizabeth Van Dyke) is a good wife, stern mother, and devoted caretaker of her Aunt Cora (Rayme Cornell), a woman who haunts the neighboring backwoods dressed in a black veil. In many ways, the Cheeks are a model family, and Redwood spends an awful lot of time itemizing just how good. Manners are pounded into the already well-behaved children, father Rawl (Marcus Naylor) instigates hugfests with alarming regularity, and Mattie practices forgiveness in situations where most saints would balk. Even the spats between smart-alecky Matoka (Charis M. Wilson) and her older sister Joyce (Adrienne Carter) are tartly adorable. That the Cheeks dont always seem real, however, doesnt diminish their emotional weighttheir truth lies in their struggle, not in the idealizing of their domestic details.
Shortly after Rawl departs for a lucrative three-month stint digging up white corpses, Mattie reports that shes been raped by a good ol Southern boy. Afraid of what might happen if her husband seeks revenge, Mattie swears her teenage daughter Joyce to secrecy. Yaveni Aaronsohn (Jack Aaron), a Jewish scholar whos come down to North Carolina to write a book comparing the suffering of blacks and Jews, is also told to keep his busybody nose out of it, though his silence goes against his sense of justice. Without giving away too much of the plot (Redwoods drama relies on a pileup of agonizing surprises), Mattie is forced to choose between saving her mans life and losing him as a husband.
As the crisis escalates, so too does Redwoods homiletic oratory. In the peak of the Cheeks marital crisis, Yaveni launches into a history of the last 200 years of European Jewry. His presence in the story never seems fully integrated, so its no surprise that the final resolution turns not on his action but that of crazy Aunt Cora. More damaging, however, is Redwoods uncritical assumption that long-suffering (and fiendishly uncompromising) mother knows best. Rarely are the actorsall serviceable under Israel Hickss directionallowed to question this presumptive fact. As he demonstrated in The Old Settler, Redwood can spin a compellingly old-fashioned matriarchal yarn. Now if only he would entrust his characters with enough room to make up their own ambivalent minds.
Short-story writers specialize in portraits of conflicted characters, and theres little doubt that Isaac Bashevis Singer was one of the great practitioners of the form. In his solo performance, actor David Margulies presents a theatrical adaptation of Singers tale Gimpel the Fool alongside Delmore Schwartzs In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Each story launched the career of its Jewish writer. Saul Bellows translation of Gimpel introduced the beloved Yiddish writer to an English-speaking audience. The publication of In Dreams brought the 24-year-old author of unstable psychological makeup a permanent place in American letters.
Dressed as a peasant in a wool vest and cloth boots, Margulies embodies Gimpel not as a fool but as a man who accepts whatever life has to offer. Though the townspeople of Frampol cant resist taking advantage of his gullible nature, he would rather be a dupe than assume the worst of his neighbor. A marvel of folklorist sketching, Margulies conjures the presence of the taunting hordes through a single injured shrug. More impressive, he makes his characters loving nature seem thoroughly plausible; even after hes been cuckolded for the umpteenth time, his Gimpel gleams with the forlorn hope of marital respect and tenderness. Marguliess own humanity burnishes Singers with a knowledge that though the world is entirely imaginary, the true world, where not even Gimpel can be deceived, is just a graveyard away.
More contemporary in tone, In Dreams revolves around a young man envisioning his parents early courtship as though it were appearing on a movie screen. Marguliess treatment here is more straightforward, his gifts for caricature held in check by Schwartzs sepia-tinged realism. Still, our narrator manages to color in the fathers virile arrogance as he struts down the Coney Island boardwalk with his future wife, never doubting the business plan hes devised for his future happiness. By the time the son blurts out his warning to his parents not to marryNothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrousMargulies has given voice to the emotional morass spurring magisterial art.
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