Zebra Crossing Theatre and North Avenue Productions

at the Synergy Center

Can a comedy that depicts would-be Ku Klux Klan terrorists as harmless, laughable buffoons work in the season of David Duke? Not very well, in the case of Shifra Werch’s staging of Coup/Clucks, a pair of related one-acts by the pseudonymous “Jane Martin.”

First produced in 1982 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Coup/Clucks depicts a day in the life of Brine, Alabama, a small town whose innate dreariness is exacerbated by a financial depression that’s driving most of its work force west in search of jobs. The two plays (which can be produced separately or together–Coup was presented on its own during last season’s Off Off Loop Theater Festival) are set on July 4–the day of the annual “Tara Parade and Ball,” a charity event to raise funds for the local Daughters of the Confederacy. But efforts to preserve this symbolic remnant of the Old South are doomed in this Dixie dump where, as one character comments, “all the good ol’ boys leave for Texas, an’ the only folks movin’ in is a colored dentist and a hairdressin’ fairy.”

Indeed, the presence of a black doctor and a gay beautician make for an untraditional Tara Parade in Coup, the more farcical of these plays. Miz Zifty, in whose all-white antebellum home Coup is set, is a 60-ish doyenne who is proudly celebrating her 23rd year as Scarlett in the costume parade; but a Scarlett needs a Rhett, and Miz Zifty’s leading man, Travis, happens to be dead drunk. While scrounging around for a suitable stand-in, Miz Zifty and her friends exhibit a range of southern-stupid stereotypes that makes Mama’s Family look like Faulkner. Brenda Lee, the devolved debutante cast as Melanie in the parade, mourns the years that have wrinkled her once-cute cheerleader looks; her beer-swilling redneck husband Tooth guffaws like a jackass at everyone else’s problems while lounging improbably in ill-fitting Ashley Wilkes garb. Essie, Travis’s northern-educated wife, makes clumsy attempts to liberalize the proceedings by wearing blackface to impersonate Mammy–and only succeeds in infuriating both her white racist peers and the black maid Beulah, who grumps around the house challenging her employer’s Dixieland delusions. (Miz Zifty: “Slavery was simply the system of welfare benefits of that time.” Beulah: “An’ what was floggin’?” Miz Zifty: “We never flogged, we spanked.”) And fluttery Don Savanah, the “perennial bachelor” beautician, works overtime to turn the ladies into something approximating Gone With the Wind glamour while lusting after Bobby Joe, the 17-year-old shitkicker recruited to replace Travis.

In Clucks, which takes place the same night after the parade, Bobby Joe and Tooth engage in a little white-robed fun outside the home of a recently arrived black dentist, Dr. Kennedy, whose wife has already retreated north after finding a dead cat nailed to their door. Where Coup’s comedy stems from the interaction of leftover Confederate traditionalists with uppity blacks, gays, and feminists, Clucks concentrates on the clownish misadventures of a group of men whose similarities only reinforce their idiocy. Joining Bobby Joe and Tooth are the errant Travis, a self-impressed state trooper named Zits, and a foolish fanatic named Ryman who tries to assert his tenuous masculinity by spewing macho racial invective and masterminding the attempted cross burning. Of course, Dr. Kennedy is twice the man his foes could ever be; he ensnares and embarrasses the jerks in short order, then endeavors to teach Travis a special lesson in humility and brotherhood.

At first the decision by Zebra Crossing Theatre and North Avenue Productions to stage these plays seems timely. The Gone With the Wind nostalgia that motivates Coup has been recently in the headlines with the publication of the sequel Scarlett; and the enduring influence of the Ku Klux Klan (whose genesis is heroically depicted in Gone With the Wind) has won renewed attention with the mainstream political emergence of onetime Klan leader David Duke. But rather than make these decade-old plays seem fresher, the Duke movement exposes them as glib and naive. Resentful rebels like Travis, Tooth, and Ryman, and their ignorant patsies like Bobby Joe, may not be able to carry off a cross burning–hell, Travis even gets a ticket after parking in a handicapped zone–but they sure can vote. David Duke won the white vote in last year’s Louisiana gubernatorial race, and Democrats who relish his embarrassing presence in this year’s Republican primaries had better take seriously the genuine anger and malaise that Duke and his ilk plan to exploit in the coming hard times. Making fun of racial bigotry and class resentment with easy jokes and cartoon caricatures doesn’t do much to confront a very serious situation.

In theatrical terms, the scripts and this staging have promising moments of satiric sharpness but fail to live up to their potential. Coup is the better of the two works, with its collision of reactionary and revolutionary sensibilities; but the actors shy away from the black-comic fury needed to focus the intent of its bizarre litanies of racial and sexual slurs–it’s as if they feared we might think they meant slurs like “murderin’-liberal-humanist trash . . . go back to Africa!” The best moments come from Janice Booker as Beulah–she understands that the only way to handle lines like “You’re still a big ol’ fruit” is to relish their tastelessness. In the more seriocomic Clucks, which seeks to win our sympathy for the misguided Travis after we’ve watched him hatch his horrendous plans, the best work comes from the unashamedly fiendish Christopher Gurr, whose racist Ryman recalls a demented Don Knotts. Of the characters who appear in both plays, the most effective is Bobby Joe, played by Kevin Farrell with openmouthed ingenuousness; the least convincing is Dr. Kennedy, enacted by Thomas Tinsley with a fatal combination of smug attitude and sloppy articulation.

On the technical side, costume designer Kevin E. Peterson’s ersatz GWTW hoopskirts and Zouave tunics are impressive. But Marlene Zuccaro’s offstage sound effects reduce gunshots and a falling car engine to the same dull, all-purpose clunk.