at the Athenaeum Theatre
By Jack Helbig
Nothing illustrates whites’ state of denial about race better than various attempts over the years to produce “black” versions of plays written for white actors. These colorized versions of Hello, Dolly! or The Odd Couple soothe white audiences by promoting the simpleminded belief that black people are just like white people, only a little darker. Meanwhile they ignore the true complexity of race relations in America–the smoldering resentment, the castrating condescension, the lingering wounds of slavery and reconstruction.
At first glance the Laboratory Theatre’s African-American version of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita would seem just one more well-meaning but wrongheaded attempt to touch on highly charged issues without really dealing with them. After all, Russell’s 1980 play concerns two of the whitest characters you can imagine: a frivolous, gauche, trashy British hairdresser and a world-weary, nearly washed-up professor of English literature.
In creating her all-black contemporary version of Educating Rita, however, adapter-director Michele Gerard Good has made some great decisions that guarantee a production utterly unlike your average blackwashed Odd Couple.
In the first place, Educating Rita is an inspired choice. The play may have been a feel-good hit in the early 80s–both onstage and as an Academy Award-nominated movie–but it nevertheless explores the emotional issues of class and identity that also lie at the heart of the African-American experience. Rita doesn’t merely want a university education–she wants to climb out of her class, a yearning first expressed years earlier in her insistence that everyone call her by the “classy” name Rita. Even her initial choice of career–hairdressing–indicates her wish to move up, because how you wear your hair indicates your place in the social hierarchy. Rita’s desire for higher education is just another step in the process, though she fears the educational gatekeepers will find her too lower-class to give her her due. You get the feeling that Frank, the alcoholic professor who takes her under his wing, may be the only teacher willing to take on this conflicted, contentious, potty-mouthed student–especially at first, when only the most discerning observer can see she’s a diamond in the rough.
Similarly, Russell takes pains to show that Frank is on his way down the social ladder. Despite his polish and education, his personal problems–primarily alcoholism–are wrecking his life: his marriage is over, his live-in girlfriend leaves him, and by the end of the play the university administration is exiling him to Australia for a sabbatical.
Russell came by his awareness of the class structure honestly. Like Rita, he was born to a poor family in northern England, worked as a hairdresser, and went to the open university when he was 20, hoping to get the education that had so far eluded him. His similar biography perhaps explains why Russell is able to describe Rita in such loving detail. At any rate she will appeal to anyone, white or black, male or female, who’s struggled to rise in a capitalist system.
And if any group in the English-speaking world is as restricted to its place in society as poor blacks are in ours, it’s the working-class British (and their near cousins, the Irish poor). Russell’s Liverpudlian Rita faces challenges not unlike those that confront Good’s African-American Rita: both live in a culture quick to stereotype and stigmatize based on such indicators of class as speech, hairstyle, and dress.
Fortunately, however, Good doesn’t merely toss black actors into Russell’s play and hope skin color alone will make us forget that the characters are British. Rather, she works hard to translate the play from England to Chicago, including rewriting the dialogue, which was peppered with late-70s and early-80s British slang. When we first meet Rita, she talks about hair relaxers, calls things she likes “the bomb,” and speaks in a strange hybrid of white and black English that indicates her simultaneous desire to rise socially and to maintain her cultural identity. As the play progresses, Rita’s speech changes to the more measured, modulated tones of middle-class black Americans.
To bring Rita to life requires an actress of range and depth, someone who can play both the rebellious brat of the early scenes and the more polished, dignified woman evident by the play’s end. And Good has cast the part brilliantly: Valarie Tekosky is a gifted actress who negotiates the emotional turns in the script with such grace and finesse I’m surprised she isn’t better known here. A less capable actor might have gone for easy laughs early in the play, when Rita makes every imaginable faux pas (including professing her love for trash writer Jackie Collins), or have worked herself into a bathetic frenzy during the more emotional scenes later.
But Tekosky plays the part with a wonderful discretion, never sacrificing her character’s essential dignity. Later on, when Rita finds herself and her voice only to discover that her beloved professor liked her better when she was weaker, Tekosky makes us feel the character’s disappointment in our hearts.
This though she’s paired with an actor who’s not nearly as flexible or strong. Kenneth Johnson as Frank is most comfortable early on, when the character has his respectable social mask firmly in place. But as the play progresses and Frank falls apart, Johnson remains wooden: he can’t keep up with the changes Russell has written into the role.
Luckily, the play really does belong to the plucky Rita. And Tekosky’s strong enough to carry the show.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.