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Stages of Black

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Darth Vader has been unavoidable for the past few weeks thanks to the newest installation of the Star Wars saga. Everyone, of course, knows the actor, James Earl Jones, who's the famous voice behind Lord Vader's electronic exhalations. But what people probably don't know (or remember) is that James Earl Jones' big break as a performer came back in 1961 in an off-Broadway production of a play titled The Blacks.

Jones was one of many talented young black performers (including Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett Jr., and Maya Angelou) involved in that Obie-winning production of Jean Genet's absurdist play.

Genet's scathing indictment of racism (particularly the white, American brand practiced in the 1950's) was considered timely during the cauldron of the civil rights era. The plot, loose though it may be, involves the trial of a black man accused of killing a white woman--but Genet's work is at heart a satire of minstrel shows and a howl against hypocrisy and intolerance of all stripes.

It's unlikely that the Evidence Room chose to stage The Blacks this summer due to its tenuous connection with Darth Vader, but sadly there really aren't many reasons at all to stage this rambling, nearly three hour mess. Genet's passions that inspired The Blacks were both personal and noble--and at a time when legal segregation still existed in this country, the topicality of this work could make it a worthy exercise. Forty-five years later, The Blacks is an interesting footnote at best.

Still, give the Evidence Room and director L. Kenneth Richardson props for trying to resurrect Genet's least performed play. The dazzling sets and costumes are worth the price of admission, but sadly even the strong cast -- especially Michael A. Sheppard as a Joel Grey-esque M.C. -- can't make the play worth your time.

Not too far from the Evidence Room, another play dealing with racism is currently running at the Fountain Theatre. If Genet's work shows how Black people have suffered from the racism of White folk, Dael Orlandersmith's play Yellowman shows how Black people have suffered from the racism of other Black people.

Yellowman charts the development of a friendship between a light skinned black man, Eugene, and a dark skinned woman named Alma. As the friendship becomes more intimate, those who don't want light and dark to mix become more hostile.

Orlandersmith's play is both novel and heartfelt, two qualities that helped the play get shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize back in 2002. Also, the playwright has composed this two-fister as a sort of fugue, artfully letting the two characters narrate the events in jazzy counterpoint.

Ms. Orlandersmith's scenes are often evocative and her imagery in certain passages comes close to poetry, but the play as a whole doesn't quite soar. Despite its unique -Geechee- flavor, the narrative is conventional to the point of clich-. What's more, the play never enlarges its scope beyond the familiar tale of small town girl finding herself after moving to the big city.

Because of this, director Shirley Jo Finney's staging suffers -- unfairly perhaps -- due to memories of the two-person show that preceded it on the Fountain Theatre stage, Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances. Fugard's work magically used two people to represent entire generations and worlds connecting and disconnecting. The play's themes expanded quietly as the work progressed, whereas with Yellowman, the play opens big, but its breadth seems to slowly narrow as it unfolds.

Still even if Orlandersmith's work does not linger in the memory like great plays must, it does ably hold one's attention on stage. Much of this is due to actors Deidrie N. Henry and Chris Butler who impressively flesh out Eugene and Alma.

The passage of time will likely be kinder to Yellowman than it has been to Genet's The Blacks, but it's possible that even Dael Orlandersmith herself wishes that her play will seem dated 45 years from now...if only because racism, of all shades, will be by then -- one hopes -- that much more a thing of the past.

Yellowman continues at the Fountain Theatre through August 28. Jean Genet's The Blacks at the Evidence Room runs until June 26.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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