KING OF COONS, Congo Square Theatre Company, at Theatre Building Chicago. To show how low his title character–a former movie star who portrayed a dim-witted, lazy Negro servant in the 1930s–has sunk, playwright Michael Henry Brown puts him onstage in a seedy strip club. Here Cotton Pickett “coons” for drunk white customers and dances to “Dixie” with a Confederate flag around his shoulders. Brown is not a playwright interested in subtlety.
The script is loosely based on the life of Stepin Fetchit, America’s first black film star whose stereotypical screen persona arouses impassioned debate to this day: did he degrade his people in exchange for stardom or ingeniously exploit the crass assumptions of a racist society? For the most part Brown robs such questions of complexity and ambiguity, opting instead for a staged term paper, replacing dramatic dialogue with broad topic sentences. Pickett begins as a noble visionary who believes he can revolutionize Hollywood and ends as a bitter, self-destructive victim of the movie industry–a transformation so sudden it’s as if a switch had been thrown.
Saddled with Brown’s schematic script and a spiritless set and costumes, director Harry J. Lennix aims for the forthright, iconic acting typical of classic Hollywood films. This approach allows for a few engaging confrontations between Pickett and his wife but overall exacerbates the play’s academic feel. As Pickett, Anthony Irons is physically agile but lacks the psychological depths that might have given his character tragic stature.