Chicago Actors Ensemble

With the flurry of press lauding her latest work, The America Play, with the critical acclaim accorded her chilling The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and with the plum assignment of penning a screenplay for Spike Lee, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks seems poised on the brink of Next Big Thingdom. Gifted with a startling and offbeat writing style and a willingness to confront difficult political issues, Parks is a refreshing and innovative writer. But her work is also ponderous, static, and overly self-conscious, seemingly designed to be interpreted rather than watched.

Parks does not develop characters, she creates voices–cryptic figures who both suggest and challenge archetypal images. She does not write dialogue, she strings together words in complicated cycles to drive home her philosophical points. Hers is a fragmented style with neither beginning nor end–it’s all amorphous middle.

The title and subtitle, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom: African-American history in the shadow of the photographic image, signals both what is right and what is wrong with this interlinked series of four short plays. It is intriguing but also overwrought and pretentious, inspiring the viewer to admire the playwright’s erudition more than her play.

Parks’s major concern in Imperceptible Mutabilities is to shatter the myths whites have created about African American culture. She draws parallels between the slave trade and modern racism in America, skewering stereotypical pop-culture images of blacks and even attacking Marlin Perkins’s Wild Kingdom for its implication that Africa was once some savage “dark continent” that needed to be civilized.

Each of the four plays is introduced with a selection of photographs projected on screens at the back of the stage. A photograph of a giddily smiling entertainer in clown makeup is followed by a play that explores the pain behind that smile. A photograph of a proud, brave soldier is followed by a play that deconstructs the myth of military heroism.

The first work, “Snails,” takes place in a roach-infested apartment in which an electronic-surveillance expert interested in observing African American culture has disguised a camera as a giant bug. The play addresses the difficulties three African American women have in conforming to white expectations for proper grammar and proper behavior. “Third Kingdom” is a darkly poetic journey aboard a slave ship whose prisoners feel they are drowning every time they approach shore. “Open House” is a modern nightmare in which a woman’s apartment triggers ancestral memories of slavery, symbolized by a sadistic dentist who extracts the woman’s teeth one after the other. The final play, “Greeks (or The Slugs)” is a satirical look at women awaiting the return of a wounded patriarch from the military, eager to impress him with how well they’ve assimilated into middle-class culture.

Parks’s work is laced with double and triple meanings and an occasionally clever and occasionally glib sense of wordplay. The extraction of teeth recalls the African homeland from which slaves were extracted and their ancestry or “extraction.” In “Greeks,” a soldier experiences both a mine explosion and a mind explosion.

Heady stuff, to be sure, and certainly worth the price of admission in Chicago Actors Ensemble’s expertly acted production, but probably a lot more interesting to discuss than to sit through. Parks’s play is too intricately constructed, too layered with contrived symbolism to be effective as drama. It even strives to seem more complex than it actually is. Her repetitious style gives the play a poetic rhythm, but also belabors obvious points. The emphatic shouting of “Marlin Perkins got a gun” on several occasions is just one example of how the playwright’s style can get monotonous.

Chicago Actors Ensemble is to be commended, however, for its ambition in continuing to stage the work of this promising, if somewhat frustrating, playwright. With first-rate production values that far exceed those of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, CAE’s Imperceptible Mutabilities gives a near-perfect production of an imperfect play. The slides by Tony Martin belong in a museum and are brilliantly synchronized to create the illusion of movement. Director David K. Smith uses his five gifted actors to paint eerie and captivating images that are as well constructed as the photographs themselves. A scene in which an overseer lords over two rowers in a slave ship as a woman in the distance frantically waves at them to return is especially memorable.

This is an evening of theater that frustrates and befuddles more than it entertains, but it’s also one that’s difficult to forget.