Victory Gardens Theater

A deep rumble coming from the core of the earth. The deep rumble of an underground race of people.–Cane

The powerful yearning for identity in a land that denies it pulses through the 1923 novel Cane. Considered the gem of the Harlem renaissance, Jean Toomer’s free-form work combines disconnected short stories, folktales, and an impressionistic poetic narrative. The disparate elements present a portrait of southern blacks in search of a usable past, a quest that became more urgent as people migrated north only to find themselves still locked out of the American dream.

Toomer wrote Cane after the summer of 1921, when this northerner of mixed race (“In my body were many bloods”) took an administrative job in a technical school for African Americans in Georgia. The exotic rituals and folklore, the uneasy mix of rural peace and sudden violence, and the sensuality of the women he discovered while he was there stirred him to write his rhapsodic evocation, which he called a “swan song” for a way of life that was passing before him. Unfortunately, it is also as dense and tangled as Georgia kudzu.

In Charles Smith’s equally problematic adaptation of Toomer’s southern odyssey, a Victory Gardens world premiere, Toomer’s alter ego, Professor Ralph Kabnis, comes to Sparta, Georgia, to teach. The locals initially think him “dicty” (uppity), but Kabnis’s warm-blooded curiosity triggers their passion for story telling and inspired gossip.

Kabnis tries to capture the smell of the cane along the Dixie Pike and the way Jesus whispers to him in the pines. He also hears and then tells tales that center on women as objects of desire or pity. There’s one about a white woman who, after having two children by a black man, was exiled to a railroad shack and provided for by the town that shunned her. Other dreamlike love stories concern a show girl romanced by a scholar, an ostracized woman and the lover who wants to protect her with his pity who act out their thoughts, and a woman, kept by a white man but desired by a black man, who triggers an orgy of violence that claims three lives.

We even witness Kabnis’s abortive affair in Washington, D.C., with a woman he calls a “cow,” who turns out to be too lazy for love. But disappointment never quells his penchant for baroque images: “Creamy brown skin, slightly darkened, like the shadow of a bird’s wing” or “Her breath–the last sweet scent of cane, and her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh after flame.” Brains are irrelevant to ghastly gush like this.

Kabnis changes with all that he smells, sees, hears, and lusts for. He stops teaching and becomes a carpenter. He turns increasingly angry at the way whites have distorted the Bible to serve themselves. Dissolving in drink and philandering, he seems obsessed with his capacity to sin–until the touch of a young woman supposedly awakens him and he turns repentant and religious. The last scene shows him literally climbing toward the light.

Despite his best intentions, Smith has not forged a play out of Toomer’s diffuse mosaic. There’s no forward motion, no building from scene to scene–just a dabbling in unprocessed fragments. As a character, Kabnis remains as amorphous and undeveloped as the tales he spins; the changes he undergoes seem gratuitous and unearned. One soon tires of trying to bridge the gaps.

It doesn’t help that Smith/Toomer gives the cast of ten such stiff and abstract speeches as this courtship line: “I have the courage to conquer the Keeper of the Taboo if you will only come with me.” Or that the dialogue is suffused with a cloying religiosity and mysticism that all but bar entrance to the play’s inner workings. The archetypal Baptist preacher says, “I was born Barlo. Born in a cane field. The hands of Jesus touched me.” (For black writers who followed Toomer–James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison–religion was one more way to keep a people down.) Nor is the story of one alienated man’s reckoning with his roots helped by the shifting of scene from north to south and back.

Another difficulty is that Toomer believed you could see God through the eyes of a woman. Perhaps that’s one reason he never seems to really see his women, who are tactile male fantasies straight out of the Song of Solomon. You get no sense of the strength and independence that ennoble the Greenwood, Mississippi, heroines in Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta. Not one holds a man with anything but her body. Indeed one advises another, “Forget your tricks and just dance. . . . Speak to him with your face and your eyes.” They’d love that in Saudi Arabia.

Backed up by blues and gospel ballads by Leslie Holland and dappled lighting by Michael Rourke, Dennis Zacek’s staging is as musical and sensuous as the material–and as maddeningly vaporous, unfocused, and marred by awkward transitions.

Though they can’t salvage an unshaped show, several performances do distract. Phillip Edward Van Lear plays Kabnis with hearty abandon, though his character’s changes still feel abrupt and inexplicable. (In one scene Kabnis runs in screaming that the bloodhounds are after him, yet what he’s running from is never clear.) Tony Smith brings his stentorian skills and persuasive bulk to preacher Barlo and to the black man who’s killed by a mob. And Adjora Faith Stevens, Celeste Williams, and Leslie Holland play the women with much more dignity than went into the writing.