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My Occasion of Sin
Playwright Monica Bauer has used this riot as the basis of her play now making its New York premiere at Urban Stages and directed by Frances Hill. The play, speaks not so much to the riots as to the attitudes that led to racial strife in Omaha.
My Occasion of Sin is a 5-character play in which the central character, Vivian Strong (Danielle Thompson) speaks only in monologues. The other characters are involved in a struggle between African-American musician Luigi Wells (Royce Johnson) and his Polish employers, Helen and George Hollewinski (Janice Hall and Scott Robertson), who own a music store and school.
George, a frustrated jazz musician, grows closer to Luigi, while Helen becomes increasingly suspicious and afraid of the black man. The situation is complicated by one of George’s students, Helen Mary Margaret Irzandowsky (Rosebud Baker), who insists that Luigi teach her how to play the drums, even though Helen, George and Luigi all agree this is no instrument for a young lady.
A love of music might bring together all the characters in the play. Mary Margaret and Vivian are both enamored of the new music they hear on the radio. The best day of Vivian’s life is when her mother brings her a jazz record for her fourteenth birthday. Mary Margaret is thrilled by the music Luigi introduces her to. But the outside world keeps intruding. Vivian’s boyfriend, Duane, wears a ‘fro and “spend all his day hangin’ out on the corner talkin’ ’bout Black Power.” Helen, afraid of what her church friends may say, informs Luigi that he is no longer welcome at the Hollewinski’s business and fires him when she glimpses the enthusiastic Mary Margaret hugging him.
The play is based on an excellent concept, but suffers awkward plot development (the characters seem found, rather than developed) and inappropriate casting. Thompson struggles admirably with overly long and overly numerous dialogues; she is hampered by the fact that she is clearly an adult in a child’s role. This kind of casting may work in some circumstances but not in a realistic play such as My Occasion of Sin. Baker is similarly miscast. Even Johnson is too young for his role.
Nevertheless, much of My Occasion of Sin is quite effective and moving. We are more than willing to feel sympathy for these two young girls caught up in a racism they want no part of. Even George, who harbors racist thoughts, is a complex character whom we cannot entirely dislike. Helen, however, is beyond redemption, and is the real occasion of sin.
Despite its long history of workshops, My Occasion of Sin has many of the earmarks of an early play. It also shows considerable promise. This staging is Bauer’s off-Broadway debut after a long time in the off-off Broadway and Fringe worlds. It is a huge move which does credit to both Urban Stages and Bauer. Kevin R. Frech’s projections do a good job exploring the world in which Monica Bauer's characters live.
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