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Kuumba Theatre

Two Can Play, by Jamaican writer Trevor Rhone, is a two-person, two-act play that, by the end, almost seems like two different plays. The first act is a farcical sociopolitical cartoon; the second a traditional, sentimental domestic comedy. In some plays, this midstream change of dramatic horses might produce very unsatisfying results; but Rhone, best known for the screenplay of Jimmy Cliff’s film The Harder They Come, never fails to engage the audience’s affection for or belief in his two protagonists, Gloria and Jim. And when you’ve got the audience rooting for the characters–not because they’re perfect but because they’re not–then you can do almost anything you want with it.

Jim and Gloria are a middle-aged Jamaican husband and wife living in a multiple-combat zone. Outside is the relentless rattle of gunfire, the sound of Jamaica’s unrest of the 70s. Inside is a marriage fraught with problems, stemming mostly from Jim’s inability to take his wife seriously as a human being. He loves her and depends on her, but, well, he’s a man and she’s a woman, so anything she says is nonsense unless it involves the kitchen. We, of course, know better: Two Can Play derives much of its initial humor from the Honeymooners-style interplay between the blustery male buffoon and the crafty caretaker wife.

But though we notice in the first act the imbalance in Jim and Gloria’s marriage, our attention is focused more on the paranoia that pervades the couple’s lives as they dodge the bullets of right-wing and left-wing radicals. Having recently sent their teenaged children away to the United States, Jim and Gloria are increasingly inclined to go there themselves. The last straw comes when a factional shoot-out erupts at the funeral of Jim’s father and Jim is wounded–because the pallbearers run away and let the coffin fall on top of him. Jim and Gloria’s decision to leave Jamaica for the States opens up a whole new area of satire: their efforts to buy U.S. dollars on the black market, outwit electronic surveillance by Jamaican and American authorities, and arrange for Gloria to marry a U.S. citizen in order to obtain American residency.

It’s at this point that Rhone unveils his real theme: not the geopolitical new world that America represents for Jim and Gloria, but the emotional new world that they stumble into in the process of emigrating. In her first trip to Miami, Gloria discovers that for a black foreigner, America is a land not of opportunity but of challenge–but she also finds the challenges invigorating, and her success in meeting them liberating. She returns home to find Jamaica more appealing–and Jim’s behavior more stifling–than she ever had before. Her new demands that Jim stop treating her like a wife and start respecting her as a woman startle her husband; his bullying and bellowing, once a source of comedy, becomes as ugly to the audience as it is to Gloria.

The last part of Two Can Play explores how Jim and Gloria resolve their tensions and their efforts to move to America. Without giving away the plot–which includes an episode of seriocomic deception stemming from an onstage act of masturbation–suffice it to say that things get worse before they get better, and that everything works out in the pat ending that is the play’s major flaw. But that flaw is only mildly damaging; Rhone makes us genuinely wish for Gloria and Jim’s reconciliation, and a more realistic denouement would be unsatisfying. (Would The Honeymooners have been a hit if Ralph Kramden hadn’t invariably said, “Baby, you’re the greatest”?)

Carol Hall, apparently a novice to the stage, needs to project her lines more clearly, but her portrayal of Gloria is both slyly sexy and sweetly affecting. Sam Sanders, a veteran actor, matches her nicely as the alternately boyish and brutish Sam. Anthony Sommer, making his Chicago directorial debut, has staged the script with humanity and grace, opting to play down the potentially broad humor in favor of overall believability. Aided by the inviting atmosphere of the spacious yet intimate Malcolm X College auditorium, set designers Sommer and Susan Thomas and lighting designer Babatu Biregu have created a warm, genuinely homey environment that suits well this appealing little play.