Organic Lab Theater

Black and white, brash and demure, personality-oriented and issues-focused–the two men who perform Do the White Thing are a study in complementary contrasts. Unfortunately, there is a less complimentary contrast to be found in their relative skill as comic performers.

This two-act revue of songs, sketches, and monologues brings together veteran stand-up comic Aaron Freeman and singer-songwriter Rob Kolson through a rather spurious premise: Freeman and Kolson run into each other while trying to catch a cab. No taxi will stop for either of them. Freeman is ignored, he thinks, because he’s black (“Back when Harold Washington was mayor, you could get a cab like that!” he says in the first of numerous references to his early association with the Washington years and “Council Wars”); Kolson can’t catch a cab because he’s carrying not just a guitar but an upright piano. Left stranded on the street corner, the two guys start talking and exchanging shtick–some of which seems new, much of which seems recycled from earlier material.

Freeman, as “Council Wars” fans know, specializes in politics; Kolson, a former University of Chicago economics teacher (“An anarchist with credit cards,” Freeman says to sum up his partner’s libertarian leanings), focuses on the more arcane area of finance. Between the two of them, Freeman and Kolson maintain, they’re equipped to take on “the politicians and the people who own them”; and the mix of these two areas of satire does give the show an unusual edge.

Freeman’s gruff, gregarious manner and distinctive foghorn bellow are offset nicely by Kolson’s laid-back, rather shy demeanor; and Kolson’s wryly conservative approach to comedy is an interesting balance to Freeman’s bluntly caustic comments on the hypocrisies of public figures (including a crude lampoon of Reverend Ralph Abernathy as a sexual and political also-ran to Martin Luther King Jr.). Freeman also gives the show its most extreme quality in a risky, unsettling monologue about his brother’s death from lung cancer–a scene that gives the show’s title a quite different meaning from the obvious and glib racial one it at first seems to have.

But while Kolson is likable, and while Freeman is a generous performer who knows how to share the stage as well as take it, Kolson’s inexperience gives the show an amateurish quality. Kolson also bears responsibility for the evening’s weakest element, the songs. Attempting to write musical parodies in a Mark Russell vein, Kolson fails to match his new lyrics to the notes and rhythms of familiar tunes. He also alters his source songs to fit his words, which is a cheap and easy out for a writer working in this quite specialized genre. The sloppy matching of words to melody robs the song spoofs of comic impact just as bad timing ruins a spoken punch line. Despite his status as a musical director with the Second City theater, Kolson is definitely an apprentice-level talent.

But given the brisk and intelligent direction of Bob Curry and Nate Herman, as well as Freeman’s own full-bodied presence as a writer and performer, Kolson doesn’t bring the show down too far–and, of course, the only way he’s going to get experience is by doing. With regular updating of its material for timeliness, Do the White Thing could build a steady following on the basis of its strengths, while its weaknesses grow less troublesome over time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al DiFranco.