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Chicago Cooperative Stage

The antagonism between blacks and Jews could fuel a very explosive play. Both groups have been targets of outrageous bigotry and injustice. But despite similarities, black anti-Semitism is a fact of life, and Jackie Mason can still get laughs with jokes about shvartzes.

Ron Mark takes a stab at this issue in Joe Momma!, but he gets tangled up in stereotypes, platitudes, wishful thinking, and gooey sentimentality. Set in the teachers’ lounge of a school on Chicago’s south side during the tumultuous 1967-’68 school year, the play attempts to expose the tensions between two Jewish teachers and their black counterparts. Ziggy Razzowitz is a fawning, nerdy new teacher who thinks black people are just soooo cool. “Hey, I got to learn all those words, all that black culture,” he says breathlessly to a dashiki-clad black teacher named Tubuku. But Tubuku won’t even talk to Ziggy. Instead, a less strident black teacher, Rudy Waddles, attempts to transform Ziggy into a “blue eye”–ghetto slang for “a honkie with soul.” He tells Ziggy to stop dressing like a Christmas tree, in outlandish combinations of plaids and stripes, and to walk with the fluid, bouncing gait known as a pimp roll. But Ziggy is a slow learner. “Who’s this Joe Momma?” he asks, misunderstanding the students’ ubiquitous taunt.

Ziggy keeps trying to learn the ways of black society, however, because he is lusting after a sexy black teacher named Zaharah Tiffany, who barely even notices him. Meanwhile, Lucy Capone, a sexually repressed white teacher, is secretly in love with Tubuku–she has disturbing dreams about a black snake wriggling around inside of her. The guilt aroused in her by such “sinful” feelings is driving her toward a nervous breakdown.

This setup, silly as it sounds, could have worked. Teachers are educated, after all, and presumably enlightened enough to have some perspective on racial tensions. These particular teachers are strategically placed between the conservative principal, who stands for law, order, and the status quo, and the students, whose energy is about to propel the civil rights movement in a more militant direction.

Instead of using this situation to explore the divisions between blacks and Jews, however, the playwright falls back on cliches. “You’re Jewish, right?” Rudy asks Ziggy. “You guys always answer questions with another question.” Tubuku’s grandfather, of course, was castrated and hanged by some white men who raped his wife while he watched. “But with his last breath, he spit in their faces,” Tubuku announces proudly. And Ziggy recalls a childhood incident in which his best friend, Dallas Bibbs, brought him into a dark place where there was a statue of a man with nails in his hands and feet. Then Dallas brought him outside and punched him in the nose. “You killed Jesus!” Dallas screamed as he continued to punch Ziggy in the face. Ziggy feels this experience entitles him to acceptance by blacks, and when the black teachers reject this claim, he utters the mawkish bromide: “You’re color-blind–all you see is black; all I see are people!”

Director Elaine P. Schatzline-Behr has done a commendable job of extracting a few moments of tension from the uninspired script. Although Gregory Winston, as Tubuku, doesn’t have many lines in the first act, he explodes in rage after the assassination of Martin Luther King, expressing the anguish and despair that drove many blacks to violence. Likewise Scott Mosenson, as Solly Glickman, the other Jewish teacher, has little to say at the beginning of the play. When the rioting starts, however, his fear of black violence forces his suppressed racism to erupt. Mia Lefkowitz, as Lucy, and Emily Brown, as Zaharah, give persuasive portrayals of diametrically opposite women. And while Sam DeFrancisco is unconvincing as Ziggy, the reason may be the script–he is supposed to be simultaneously smart and stupid, sincere and hypocritical, peace loving and revolutionary. Even a brilliant actor would have had trouble reconciling such contradictions.

Mark recognizes that the hostility between blacks and Jews is unpleasant to confront; the program quotes Martin Luther King: “A time comes when silence is betrayal–that time has come for us.” At least Mark has the courage to speak out, but he fails to say anything original or compelling. Joe Momma is like a drawing by an exuberant five-year-old–though it’s been inspired by vivid, exciting visions, the finished product is little more than a primitive scrawl.