|A CurtainUp Review
By Jenny Sandman
Abraham Lincoln once said, "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free." In Robert O'Hara's newest play, American Ma(u)l, he explores what would happen if the current administration were allowed to revoke freedoms at will.
To allay the budget crisis, the President assembles a think tank (the "Coke for Hope" Society). Dr. Eli Whitney the Fifth invents a new form of cotton sure to revolutionize the garment industry. America can corner the market with this new cotton, and earn enough money to pull the country out of its economic slump. However, the new cotton must be harvested-so the President revokes the 14th Amendment, reinstating slavery. Black Americans must report "Down South" immediately.
This story is refracted through that of Juliet, a black girl, who is in love with the two white brothers next door-facetiously named Smith and Wesson (played by one white actor and one black actor). She and Wesson meet in secret, speaking in lines from Romeo and Juliet, but Juliet decides she loves Smith more and leaves Wesson heartbroken. Smith decides he wants to buy Juliet as a slave for the family. Wesson gives Smith enough money for the down payment, on the proviso that he gets their firstborn. Meanwhile, Juliet's parents, Delaware and Georgina, are trying to prove that they are direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in order to get the "Presidential White" exemption. It doesn't work, D.C. riots, and it all erupts in chaos and violence, ending with a good old all-American cross burning.
It's an intriguing look at race relations in America, both past and present. In the program notes, O'Hara writes, "I began to think about the History and Meaning of WORDS in American History…There were many times in our history where we were doing one thing and saying something else…To call myself an American I had to acknowledge the Beauty in the Horror of how we became who we are…" It's an ambitious play; structurally, it is akin to Suzan-Lori Parks, with liberal doses of O'Hara's acerbic humor. It's still a bit messy, though; there's no real character arc, and the dramatic through-line is obscured by the many humorous asides. The short scenes propel the play forward, giving it a much-needed sense of movement, but overall it feels choppy.
The production is beautiful. The long, rectangular space is fully used. Green Astroturf is set off by a white picket fence and a white porch swing. The audience sits all around the stage, while the players move in and out of the green field, sometimes playing behind the audience. The fluid staging helps offset the choppiness of the text. It's quite a spectacle, with flashy lighting, booming sound effects and dance numbers, cross-dressing, S&M garb, and ingenious use of a black light.
The cast is uniformly dynamic. O'Hara directed them well, though at times they run amok. O'Hara regulars Maurice McRae (Wesson), Chad Beckim (Smith) and Lloyd Porter (Delaware) are standouts, along with Richarda Abrams (Georgina) and Suzette Gunn (Juliet). Ariel Shafir makes a chillingly robotic President. Together they form a solid core of acting ability that carries the play; without their talents, the text would have lost much of its humor and urgency.
O'Hara could use a strict dramaturg, but his talent and wit are obvious. American Ma(u)l is thought-provoking, and a far weightier (and ultimately more satisfying) offering than his collection of short plays, Booty Candy.
LINKS TO OTHER ROBERT O'HARA REVIEWS
Dreamin' In Church (Snapshots 2000)
Insurrection: Holding History (Berkshires)
Insurrection: Holding History (NY)
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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