Black Ensemble


Avenue Productions

at Avenue Theatre

You can take it as a compliment to the universality of Tennessee Williams’s best-known work. In Black Ensemble’s African American version of The Glass Menagerie, Williams’s memory play about a troubled family that can only be cherished in retrospect takes on even more humanity.

Tom Wingfield, the play’s haunted narrator, like his runaway father long ago fell “in love with long distance”–but memories of home still hurt. Obsessively they drag him back to his mother Amanda, a nagging matriarch who denies an unpleasant present by fixating on her golden memories of gentlemen callers, and to Laura, his crippled, morbidly self-conscious sister who has escaped into a fantasy world of glass animals.

Enter the play’s exponent of reality, a brusque young student of public speaking, Jim O’Connor. But the unintentional gentleman caller doesn’t know the role he’s supposed to play. Amanda pathetically wants to re-create the past and provide her daughter with the love she lacked, and Laura is desperate to be honored rather than pitied. Given such unknown and exorbitant expectations, it’s amazing how well Jim acquits himself.

Chuck Smith’s warmly wrought and intriguingly conceived production acquits itself equally well. He’s made some changes–the setting is now East Saint Louis, and proud Amanda comes from Trinidad–that settle into the script smoothly enough. The casting innovations go further: grounding Laura’s situation in real life is Diana Elizabeth Jordan, an actress with cerebral palsy. The result, not in the least exploitive, speaks for itself: Jordan’s quiet intensity, the powerful pauses with which she punctuates Laura’s discoveries, even her refusal to look at people when you expect her to, provide a poignance the part has seldom had.

Always a surprising actress, Jackie Taylor puts a strong stamp on this Caribbean Amanda (whose Trinidadian cadences neatly echo the lilting southern-belle rhythms of Amanda’s lines). Taylor’s mournful mother, exhausted by her latest broken hopes, channels her despair into a favorite recreation–playing the martyr. (As always, what’s ridiculous about Amanda is also just what helps her survive.) Dwain A. Perry plays the gentleman caller with buoyant confidence, ironically deepening his pitch as Laura starts to confuse his Dale Carnegie advice with a proposal. This is the cruelty of ignorance and good intentions.

By far the most original take comes from David Barr, whose soft-spoken Tom seems almost afraid to tell his story yet resigned to what he must endlessly replay; he’s clearly beyond the hard feelings he narrates. As you watch Barr’s “memory” Tom, you can see the future writer–in the elaborate sarcasm he directs at Amanda–in the making.

Moving from an all-black version of Williams’s sad clan to the late Preston Jones’s lily-white redneck brotherhood, you see why some scripts can’t be color-blind. Jones’s bittersweet comedy, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, offers a caustic look at a racist west-Texas social fraternity once dedicated to racial purity and a bogus patriotism. In 1962 the society is as decrepit as the burg it inhabits: Bradleyville, population 6,000 and soon to be much fewer. The Magnolias have dwindled to a handful of good ol’ boys who chug whiskey, play dominoes, renew ancient quarrels, and dream of the so-called glory days when the lodge rivaled the KKK.

Jones’s losers are pungent Dixie stereotypes–a desperate drunk, a specialist in the town’s genealogy, a bitter bigot, the club’s true believer, a nerdy mama’s boy, and most memorable, the Colonel, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who, though he’s out of touch with the present tense, recalls past battles all too well. Ironically, his senility has rendered him the least racist Magnolia.

The moment of truth comes when the club desperately tries to recruit its first new member in five years. Dumber than a post, Lonnie Roy seems the perfect candidate: to him the lodge’s faded trappings look like a terrific change from the pool hall. His induction into the sacred mysteries of the Magnolias is the funniest case of crude theatrics since “Pyramus and Thisbe.”

During this doomed meeting Lonnie sees the worst of the Magnolias: the fraternity turns fratricidal. Though it’s nothing less than the pinheads deserve, this self-destruction is also a sad affair–this was the sole social life these louts had. Once the ex-Magnolias have trooped off into oblivion, Jones hands the black janitor–whom the boys needed more than they knew–a literal last laugh.

Staged by Laura Goltz, Avenue Theatre’s revival is faithful enough, though at times it’s too brisk and boisterous even for Jones’s efficient and unsubtle script. At its best it delivers the quirky compassion Jones feels for his colorful dead-end types. (But let’s not kid ourselves: the Magnolias may be gone, but all-white golf clubs remain to carry the torch.)

Bob McDonald as the Colonel makes much of a plum role, barking out the character’s Alzheimer anxieties–his stupid last words–with a vacant pathos nothing less than eerie. As Red, the trigger-happy insult artist, Deane Clark keeps his character on a slow burn that boils over only when he delivers the postmortem on the club. Dan Payne, as the last to believe in the cause, registers the bizarre spunk of a fanatic who redoubles his efforts when the goal’s been forgotten.

As played by Chris Cole, David David Katzman, and Douglas Blakeslee, the younger Magnolias are appropriately paralyzed by stupidity–lugs auditioning for obscurity. Josh White III, though he’s young to play Ramsey Eyes (a sardonic throwback to Stepin Fetchit), slyly indicates with every look that he’d love to see the Magnolias on the compost heap.