Theater archives

Family Plots


The bark of John Henry Redwood’s title, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, is worse than his play’s bite. A melodrama to its core, Redwood’s 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 country—the impunity with which white men raped and victimized black women in the Jim Crow-era South. Here’s 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 grayareas—a location from which Redwood’s 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 don’t always seem real, however, doesn’t diminish their emotional weight—their 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 she’s 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 who’s 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 (Redwood’s drama relies on a pileup of agonizing surprises), Mattie is forced to choose between saving her man’s life and losing him as a husband.

As the crisis escalates, so too does Redwood’s 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 it’s no surprise that the final resolution turns not on his action but that of crazy Aunt Cora. More damaging, however, is Redwood’s uncritical assumption that long-suffering (and fiendishly uncompromising) mother knows best. Rarely are the actors—all serviceable under Israel Hicks’s direction—allowed 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 there’s 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 Singer’s tale “Gimpel the Fool” alongside Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Each story launched the career of its Jewish writer. Saul Bellow’s 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 can’t 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 character’s loving nature seem thoroughly plausible; even after he’s been cuckolded for the umpteenth time, his Gimpel gleams with the forlorn hope of marital respect and tenderness. Margulies’s own humanity burnishes Singer’s 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. Margulies’s treatment here is more straightforward, his gifts for caricature held in check by Schwartz’s sepia-tinged realism. Still, our narrator manages to color in the father’s virile arrogance as he struts down the Coney Island boardwalk with his future wife, never doubting the business plan he’s devised for his future happiness. By the time the son blurts out his warning to his parents not to marry—”Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous”—Margulies has given voice to the emotional morass spurring magisterial art.

Francine Russo’s review of John Henry Redwood’s The In-Gathering.
Michael Feingold’s review of Redwood’s The Old Settler.