The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae, ETA Creative Arts Foundation.

Marcia L. Leslie’s political play about racial stereotypes and their history, given the form of a passionate if somewhat predictable courtroom drama, speaks to a neglected audience: black women. A struggling black businesswoman is suing the all-giving, malleable Mammy Louise and her sex-kitten daughter Safreeta Mae because their stereotypes hobble her progress. The audience, cast as the jury though it never gets to render a verdict, learns the personal and collective histories masked by the racist stereotypes, and the “short-sighted black woman” comes to understand that the African-American legacy of surviving captivity and brutality can be a strength.

The play, the first in ETA’s Playwrights Discovery/Development Initiative, has many of the problems of a work in progress. Speeches are too long, ideology is hammered home, and the characters are sketches the actors fill with broad gestures and familiar TV role-playing. Paul Carter Harrison’s direction heightens these problems by emphasizing the work’s presentational, dogmatic rhythm rather than the playful parody.

Still, there’s potential here. With sharper cuing, the video footage from “classic” racist television and film could provide cutting humor. The masks worn by the actor playing all the men comically embody both white and black patriarchal oppression. Most important, there’s real power in the nonstereotyped secrets of Safreeta Mae and Mammy Louise, which the audience greeted with “uh-hums” and sighs. The playwright might well take Mammy’s advice to the buppie heroine: “You don’t have to dress dignity; it dresses you.” Leslie should let the characters’ qualities, from arrogance to courage, dress them instead of didactically overdressing them herself.