Chicago Theatre Company

I don’t relish Christmas. I don’t celebrate Muhammad’s birthday, or Buddha’s, or Lenin’s, so why should I celebrate Christ’s? And this secular phenomenon that attends Christmas, this retail-o-rama–is this peace on earth? What could any of this holiday euphoria mean to the bag lady in front of Neiman-Marcus? Christmas distresses me. I’m not wild about Christmas plays either. They strike me in much the same way as Christmas albums, which, whether they’re by Johnny Mathis or the Beach Boys, are characterized by a strange compromise of style. Such albums are most often grotesque exercises in consumerism, reaching beneath the sentimental vulnerabilities of fans and deftly picking their pockets. What Christmas plays can be said to be above this sort of thing? Certainly not this one.

It’s Christmas Eve and poor Johnnie Mae, once a talented tap dancer, has been confined to her wheelchair for ten years. Her husband, Cliff, is a philanderer and a compulsive gambler. Many times, we are told, he has gambled away the furniture, and this is one of those times. He has also gambled away Johnnie Mae’s soul. That’s right, her soul. And the devil, or the devil’s broker or whoever he is, comes to collect her soul on this holy night. Johnnie Mae’s ready to go, too, but Cliff suddenly comes home and repents and professes his love and snatches Johnnie Mae right up out of her wheelchair and dances with her. Blackout. The next morning, Christmas morning, it turns out that it was all a dream. Cliff is in the wheelchair instead. But the family is happy, and the tree is decorated, and it’s a merry Christmas after all.

I can’t apologize for giving away the plot here since it doesn’t make any sense anyway. Playwright Shirley Hardy-Leonard spends a good hour and a half laying out the exposition, and then another hour filling in the revelations, reversals, and flashbacks that supposedly justify the exposition. It’s a plot that serves itself and little else. And it doesn’t even do that well. In the end, it’s all a dream. None of the problems in Johnnie Mae’s family are resolved, because they never really existed. Unless, on the other hand, it wasn’t a dream, and Cliff’s redemption worked a miracle that allowed him to take Johnnie Mae’s place in the wheelchair. In that case, the message of this play is that there is no hope, outside of hoping for a miracle. Then again, maybe there’s no message at all, and A Christmas Dance for Johnnie Mae is only a shoddy combination of The Gift of the Magi and The Devil and Daniel Webster, adapted for black theater.

Pondering the profounder issues of Christian values–faith, hope, and charity, for instance–would be taking a wrong turn in analyzing this play. Bathos is the real issue. Our attention is yanked back time and again to Johnnie Mae’s handicap. She can’t dance. She can’t bring her family together. She can only pitifully hope that somehow–either through the magic of Christmas (and what is the magic of Christmas, anyway?) or through the intervention of some strange satanic field agent–her family will gather and drink Papa’s eggnog and dance to a Nat King Cole Christmas album. Yes, it makes me want to cry, but not for Johnnie Mae.

I want to cry for all the confused, hopeless, and culturally misguided people who try to derive some comfort from this nightmare. Are we to draw our comfort from the punishment of the wicked? To be glad that, after all, it’s Cliff who’s crippled? Should we rejoice that we’re not in wheelchairs ourselves? And what about those of us who are? Perhaps we’re meant to draw from that vial of Christmas spirit, wherein snow covers the garbage, and peace soothes the planet. It’s such a tenuous comfort, more like an illusion. A Christmas fix. Maybe that’s where Christmas plays, and especially this one, come in. We go to the theater to bolster our frail mythology. The theater is fantasy, a pit stop for happy endings. But when we come home from the theater, we won’t have happy landings on a chocolate bar or any other thing.

Still, there’s always idle diversion, which is the major strength of this play. The diversion comes in the form of witty one-liners, such as Cliffs: “‘Ho ho ho’ means three prostitutes on the corner in this part of town.” And when Cal, the demonic character, comes to collect Johnnie Mae’s soul, he tells Cliff, “The unknown wouldn’t be half so bad as what she knows about you.” There are a number of other gags, some very funny, littered about the play. And, if the play doesn’t leave you completely inert, they lighten up an otherwise leaden evening.

The performances, not to mention Douglas Alan-Mann’s direction, offer little more to appreciate. Best of all is Larry Venson (as Cal), who has a good scene or two, especially the one in which he appears in a Santa suit and gains Johnnie Mae’s confidence by glorifying her Christmas dinner. The pleasures of food and sex are compared in this scene in much the same way, derivatively enough, that Bunny equates the two in John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves. Cora Perkins (as Johnnie Mae) takes no emotional prisoners, wringing her heart and hands like a dishrag throughout. And Sam Sanders (as Cliff) portrays the bored, unfaithful, selfish slob of a chauvinist husband–exactly the kind of guy that you’ve seen so many times before.

Granted, A Christmas Dance for Johnnie Mae supplies fresh stuffing for the Christmas slot on the subscription ticket, which is crucial for a black theater. But the real problem, as I see it, is that this play doesn’t contribute to black culture so much as it exploits it. The character of Cal, the satanic Santa, only capitalizes on an interest in occult spookiness, more popularly exploited in films like Black Exorcist. And there are the stereotypes–the long-suffering matriarch, the wayward husband, the sexually spunky grandfather–that don’t reflect black society, but simply cartoon it.

At least at this juncture, it’s blacks exploiting blacks, which is an improvement over history, however unsatisfactory. What might be more useful is for black playwrights to make some hard sense out of the culture they’ve inherited. Or, if not that, to furnish creative alternatives for a new one. But this play is an incoherent dismissal of that artistic responsibility. The curtain-call tableau, with Johnnie Mae reaching out from her wheelchair to the lighted Christmas tree, fills me with despair. It’s not the melodramatic kind of despair, good for jerking a few tears. Nor is it cheap white empathy for the black condition. It’s the more universal despair arising from the Christian, yet somehow pagan, culture that proposes that salvation can be had from a pine tree decked out in aluminum and plastic doodads, illuminated by Commonwealth Edison.