Goodman Theatre Studio

In Inside the Belly of the Beast one man’s daily life is a surreal journey of humiliation and capitulation, as his attempts to realize the American white middle-class dream turn nightmarish. In Watermelon Rinds a family gathers to celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., and three generations clash in a dark comedy of racial identity. Presented together at the Goodman Studio under the title “The Ties That Bind,” these one-acts by Regina Taylor articulately define the rage and alienation under a veneer of smiles, the only weapons African Americans have had for many years.

“Overcome them with yes’s, undermine them with smiles,” Walter Gaines says, remembering his grandfather’s instructions. But Gaines, the businessman whose journey we follow in Inside the Belly of the Beast, finds that sharper weapons are required. Imaginatively and powerfully staged by Shirley Jo Finney (with help from John Culbert’s set and Robert Christen’s lights), Gaines’s workday is a whirlwind of derisive, masked white figures. His climb up the corporate ladder seems futile. A promotion involves being put in charge of a section of useless, faceless employees who are so passive they’re literally crippled, and it soon becomes clear Gaines has been chosen to be king in a court of fools. In dreamy sequences his alter ego (a cool James Bond figure) is seduced and used by a tipsy Lady Liberty, and John De Conquer (a legendary warrior-deliverer) watches fiercely, though always at a distance, as Gaines battles racial bias. Particularly effective is a scene on a subway train in which a homeboy named Malice (Darryl Alan Reed, the perfect portrait of overly friendly menace) suggests that Gaines has sold out his heritage to join a society that doesn’t want him. He’s been swallowed by the American Dream–or he has swallowed it. Either way, the price he pays is his identity.

He may as well be Willie Semple, the concerned husband and father in Watermelon Rinds who wants nothing more than to pack up his heritage and move into a better neighborhood. Willie had his wife and daughter pack up for a move some time ago; he exists in limbo, his future a dream, his past in packing cartons. Among the packed things are his sister’s straightening comb, a pair of leg irons, and an African totem stick. Nothing is forgotten, only hidden.

His brother, Jess Semple (another compelling performance by Reed), hides nothing. His resentment is often cloaked in a joke, but the punch line is nearly always a savage comment on the state of racial prejudice. Sister Marva has achieved “success” by marrying a plastic surgeon who, according to Willie’s other sister, Pinkie, has “sucked the black right out of her.” Pinkie is pregnant with the latest in a long line of illegitimate children. Willie’s parents are old vaudevillians who seem to belong to another age. “You ceased to exist with Amos ‘n’ Andy reruns,” Marva observes nastily. Shining in the midst of all these characters is Willie’s daughter Lottie, too young to remember Martin Luther King Jr., idolizing Shirley Temple, seeing no reason why she might not follow in Temple’s footsteps.

This family get-together veers from poignant to absurd without a glitch, thanks again to Finney–and to the talented cast (Reed, Phillip Edward VanLear, Yolanda Androzzo, Ora Jones, Shanesia Davis, Lizan Mitchell, Ernest Perry Jr., and Felicia P. Fields), who know how to snuggle into a stereotype while giving us a glimpse of why that refuge is necessary. Davis as Lottie is a heartrending innocent who dances angelically while her mother sings gospel. When her innocence is inevitably damaged her dance becomes a driving, demonic pattern of awe-inspiring loss and rage.

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