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A CurtainUp Review
My Occasion of Sin

This is a story about music. Anyway, that’s what I think. used to be, I didn’t think much about music.— Vivian
On June 24, 1969, an Omaha police officer fatally shot Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old black teenager, at the Logan Fontenelle Housing Project. The police had received a call about a break-in and were arresting a a suspect when Vivian and her friends went to see what had happened. A crowd immediately gathered, bottles were thrown at the police and businesses were firebombed. Over several days of rioting, there was looting, vandalism, injuries and arrests.

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.

My Occasion of Sin
By Monica Bauer
Directed by Frances Hill
Cast: Rosebud Baker (Mary Margaret Irzandowsky) , Janice Hall (Helen Hollewinski), Royce Johnson (Luigi Wells), Scott Robertson (George Hollewinski), Danielle Thompson Vivian Strong)
Set Design: Roman Tatarowicz
Lighting Design: Deborah Constantine
Sound Design: Sean Hagerty
Costume Design: Anna Lacivita
Projection Designer: Kevin R. Frech
Stage Manager: Debra Stunich
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Urban Stages 259 West 30 Street
From 3/16/12; opening 3/21/12; closing 4/25/12. Monday at 8PM, with added performances on 3/24/12 at 3 PM and 4/10/12 at 8 PM. In addition to the added performances, Urban Stages also announces several post–show talkbacks including: Prof. of African-American Studies Piper Kendrix Williams (March 24), Yale Divinity School Professor, Mary Moschella (March 31), NPR’s Kurt Anderson (April 1), Barry Levitt (April 10). These talkbacks are free with the purchase of a ticket to My Occasion of Sin.
Thursday – Saturday 8PM; Sunday at 5PM
Tickets: $40, 212-868-4444
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 20, 2012
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