Watching the Detective
Who killed Frimbo? There’s the gangster, the junkie, the railway porter, and the femme fatale, not to mention a nosy doctor and a couple of hicks. And why were false teeth found at the crime scene? The classic elements of detective fiction are given an African American spin in The Conjure Man Dies (New Federal Theatre), adapted by Harlem Renaissance writer Rudolph Fisher from his 1932 novel. Set in ’30s Harlem, the mystery unfolds once the body of Frimbo, a “conjure man” or fortune-teller, is discovered by two of his customers, Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins. Hot on their trail is our sleuth, Dr. Archer (Eric McLendon), a stuffed shirt given to rejoinders like “Your logic must itch!” when challenged by dogged police investigator Dart (the dynamic Curtis McClarin).
As the clues—a human thigh bone, an incriminating hankie, etc.—pile up and motives multiply, it’s clear that Fisher chose to construct a crowd-pleasing whodunit rather than expound about race, though he does sprinkle subtle observations throughout (an undertaker on applying makeup to corpses: “I make the dark ones light, and the light ones lighter”). Despite its Harlem milieu, Conjure Man is as political as an Agatha Christie potboiler—and nearly as entertaining, but for plot points that never quite add up. The script’s multiple story lines, relayed in a succession of choppy episodes, aren’t helped by overlong scene changes (although director Clinton Turner Davis compensates with his attention to character-defining physical gesture).
Diminutive firecracker Kevin R. Free and gangly, rubber-faced Esau Pritchett steal the show as the slapstick Brown and Jenkins, while Edward Washington makes an intense junkie and Tee C. Williams a menacing gangster. For a mystery, Conjure Man may be more full of holes than a Krispy Kreme outlet, but as a piece of literary history it highlights a genre of black writing that’s been largely overlooked. —J. Yeh
Pomo Rodents in Times Square
When the first thing onstage is a half-lit naked man, I turn nonchalant. “Someone is trying to shock me,” I think. The nude opening moments of WaxFactory’s ensemble piece Story of Rats (Chashama) had my force field of acquired ennui on standby.
After this initial image, though, a woman (Erika Latta) twisted herself into an exquisite S shape to speak into a low-hanging microphone, while another woman (Laura Kachergus), on a chair, bent backward, lending her foot to a man. By the time Latta snaked her way through a siren song worthy of PJ Harvey, I realized I was watching a sort of slippery poem-meets-dance, as if the eyes, lips, and hands of a Surrealist painting could sing and pinch each other.
The playbill for the piece includes a message from WaxFactory’s founders, director Doris Mirescu, designer Ivan Talijancic, and actors Latta and Dion Doulis. The message reads: “The fragments of text that comprise Story of Rats were never intended to be performed on stage.” One can see why. The script is derived from the poetry/philosophy of Georges Bataille, the heady French tough guy whose simplest statements run along the lines of “No greater desire exists than a wounded person’s need for another wound.” Challenged with such unrelenting pathos, it’s remarkable the piece manages to be so engaging.
The seven speakers constitute a disjointed chorus—eating oranges, sadly washing, dressing for a party. One moment they dance in tandem; the next they’re frozen by blinding light, menaced by sheets of plastic that circumscribe their set. With repeated line and movement, the varied faces take on the shifting aspects of one common, suffering mind, and the production assumes the nature of a heavily sampled song. A typewriter serves as metronome, an accordion bellows Weill-esque, and some unnameable wound—bright as fruit—is dressed with dance. —Alexis Sottile
Sam I Ain’t
“Go on with your little production,” writes a defeated Samuel Beckett, in a posthumous letter to a trio of tireless actors. Even vicious threats from lawyers won’t stop the troupe from performing seven Beckett scripts they’ve recently “unearthed.” This is the joke behind The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled “Never to Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I’ll Sue! I’LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!” (the Theatorium), both a smart tribute and a hysterical send-up of Beckett’s plays. Back after their appearance at the Fringe Fest, Chicago Neo-Futurist Greg Allen and Theater Oobleck cohorts Ben Schneider and Danny Thompson are out to prove that the worst of Beckett can also be his best.
In the curtain-raiser, Table Talk, a man is stuck in a Beckettian day. Trapped supporting the legless side of a table, he has to obey a brain in a bowl that bellows merciless orders at him. In If, a woman rocks endlessly on a chair while Bread’s “If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words” loops in the background, a repetition that only gets funnier and funnier. The evening’s most amusing piece is a puppet-play that Beckett allegedly wrote when he was seven. Happy, Happy Bunny Visits Sad, Sad Owl stars an endearingly depressed little hooter doomed to life in a bucket.
Just as in Beckett’s real plays, though, entropy eventually takes over this production. Sharp jokes fizzle out as the show comes to a close. In Foot Falls Flatly, the evening’s last offering, a pitiful Lord of the Dance kicks and screams while a voice-over recites a Macbeth monologue. The bit goes over the top—too bad, since there was no need for the company to strain at the end of the party when the rest of the show had been such happy days. —Christiane Riera Salomon
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 23, 2001