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CurtainUp Review
No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs

by Les Gutman

A. Carter, E. Van Dyke and C. Wilson
A. Carter, E. Van Dyke
and C. Wilson
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
Our Philadelphia colleague, Kathryn Osenlund, reviewed the original mounting of this new play recently at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Since it has now transferred intact to Primary Stages, I refer readers to her comments, which can be found below, as I won't repeat all of the details she exhaustively and finely covered. My "Second Thoughts" follow.

At the center of Mr. Redwood's play is a "front porch" drama that elegantly conveys a side of a pernicious American condition that's every bit as loathesome as the words on the sign from which the play gets its title. This is not just a case of bigotry or racism in abstract terms, but rather one in which the abhorrent ideas play themselves out in even more offensive physical terms. Although the play is set in North Carolina in 1949, there is no historical remove, because events in Texas and Wyoming (and, of course, elsewhere even if not as widely publicized) in the last few years make it evident that what we now call hate crimes continue to plague us.

Redwood shows us not the racism itself, but the way in which it affects an eminently decent black family, the Cheeks. The word "trauma" means an insult (physical or not) that provokes an ongoing effect. What are we to call the consequences of ongoing, pervasive trauma? No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs seeks to draw for us a picture.

To the extent Redwood focuses on this story, he accomplishes much. Yes, as Kathryn points out, he relies more heavily on narrative than he ought to, but at least we can say he has a point to make and does so. But the playwright has a further idea in mind, and that is to draw a parallel between the treatment of blacks and that of Jews. In every respect, this secondary effort is a failure. Shoehorning Yaveni Aaronsohn into the play (and it does seems as though the script was creakily interlineated with his presence) never achieves whatever point might have been intended, and it adds a diverting, discordant artificiality to an otherwise worthwhile effort. Mattie spends a good part of the play wishing Aaronsohn would get lost. I couldn't agree more. What's worse, Redwood has given the character an endless monologue that consumes a good chunk of the second act. Presumably, it is intended to explain why we have been enduring this nuisance for the past act and a half; all it does is challenge us to remember anything at all about this play. And Mr. Redwood, no Jewish man whose religious observance is deep seated enough that he walks around in the rural south wearing a yarmulke will fall prey to a fetish for eating pork.

A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs

by Kathryn Osenlund

No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs is a pretty provocative title for a heartwarming play. The Philadelphia Inquirer didn't even print the full title in its Lively Arts section, calling it "No *******, No ****, No Dogs." (No joke.) I heard that the cast referred to it during rehearsals as "The No Play." The play, which had its world premiere on January 31 in Philadelphia, is not what you would expect. It is not even remotely in-your-face. Rather, it is nostalgic. Although it is about race, it is about larger issues of hate, love, vengeance and forgiveness, things that can be talked about in a number of ways and that have been getting said for a long time. These are safe things to say now. Like the author, John Henry Redwood, who spoke at Barnes and Noble recently, the play is warm, comfortable (although certain incidents are not), unaffected, and positive.

The play opens and we hear a hummed song and crickets. There is a very small frame house you can almost see through. Behind it are long, sheer curtains partially obscuring a woods. There's a pump with running water and a tree stump. The set remains the same throughout the play. All the action, if you can call it that, takes place in front of the little house.

There is little actual action. Maybe three scenes of real-time, story-moving import take place in front of our eyes. The rest is reported and we are looking at reactions. It is not just the remote past that is talked about. Characters come in and report on what has just happened to them. Key events take place off stage. This kind of theatre is understandable when a character must report on huge battle scenes with casts of thousands. Obviously the choice was made to narrate, but it wouldn't have been too hard to show action. It would have involved more actors, and heaven knows you don't want to have too many actors in a production if you want to see it produced. Still, add another three or four small parts, and the action of the play would have been action. We hear of a church with a windy preacher and lively singing; there is an important incident involving a yarmulke and some rednecks; we only hear of a rape, which could have been suggested visually with one extra character. Finally, a violent scene is related, part of which might have been shown instead of told.

The characters talk at length about events of long ago, filling us in on the back-story. In one scene Yaveni Aaronsohn (Jack Aaron), a Jew, recounts the very long story of his life and love, his denial and his guilt, and the monologue seems to fill half the act. Still, he is a sympathetic character, sensitive and insightful -- who loves pork chops. He's the character who gets to talk about the (real) sign that was posted in Mississippi and for which the play is named. For our modern sensibilities, it seems that a truly well balanced play should involve more show than tell. This play just tells.

Some of the very good things about the play are the characters and the actors. The playwright, in building a central woman character, has managed to avoid that easy Black Mama stereotype, seen in so many musicals and TV shows, and getting tiresome. Here the central woman character is an individual who comes across as a believable person and not a paper cut out. Mattie Cheeks, admirably played by Elizabeth Van Dyke, is a force for civilization, with concern for manners, respect, and forgiveness. She is trying to preserve dignity in her family and she manages to do it with charm and grace. The husband, Rawl Cheeks (played by Marcus Naylor, a fine actor), must leave town and go "bury dead white folks," leaving his wife to manage at home with her two young daughters, Matoka and Joyce, delightfully played by Charis M. Wilson and Adrienne Carter. They live in Halifax, South Carolina, and by all accounts the place is not safe for colored people. It seems like a KKK kind of place and it is incredible that the wife insists she wants to live there when her husband, who is feeling not only the effects of prejudice, but also stifled in the rural setting, wants to move on.

A question is raised about right and wrong, what should be told to someone and what should not be told, and the ramifications of that question echo throughout the play. It also about marriage, and Mattie says that every colored woman knows that she must "take on the rage her man can't let loose anywhere else." There is a powerful scene about love where she begs her husband to stand with her in their marriage It is a racist time and, and when something bad happens, Mattie says that it "ain't right," but "right don't count for us."

Aunt Cora (Rayme Cornell), an important character, a kind of wraith, dressed all in black with a large black hat and veil, carrying a lantern and humming, picks up a basket on the step and talks to no one --a repeated motif. She is just passing through, but not without being reminded by Mattie that she is loved. Near the end, in a climactic scene once removed and related by description, there is a too-slow recounting of a violent act. It appears to be intended to be heavy, agitated, and dramatic, but the audience laughed. Had it been shown somehow, perhaps behind a curtain, it may have carried the horror and solemnity it seemed intended to bear.

Mattie, the wife and mother, and the teacher of others, does learn some lessons herself, and one is that perhaps Halifax is not the kind of place in which she should be living and bringing up her daughters. Other characters learn lessons too; however, it is noted that in a play with an overriding message of acceptance, it is a good dose of vengeance that solves the problem.

To my mind there is a flaw in the otherwise very suitable set design in that we can see virtual entrances and exits just as clearly as the characters' 'real' entrances and exits. For example, we clearly see characters who are supposedly in the house actually exiting to the back and side. A discreet opaque screen behind the house and trees would help make such exits invisible, and this real distraction would disappear.

In the end, behind a pretty daring title, the play is more about story telling than action. It is more about love than vengeance. It is steady and affirming. And there is always room for a playwright who writes about forgiveness. There is so much to forgive.

Links to other John Henry Redwood plays reviewed at CurtainUp
The In-Gathering
The Old Settler

By John Henry Redwood
Directed by Israel Hicks Cast: Elizabeth Van Dyke, Marcus Naylor, Jack Aaron, Charis M. Wilson, Adrienne Carter, Rayme Cornell
Set Design: Michael Brown
Lighting Design: Anne G. Wrightson
Costume Design: Christine Field
Sound Design: Elaine Tague
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
Co-production of Philadelphia Theatre Company and Primary Stages
Players Theater 1714 Delancey St (215.568.1920)
01/26/01-02/25/01; opening 01/31/01
Re-opened on transfer to Primary Stages, 354 West 45th Street (8/9 Avs.) Telephone (212) 333-4052
Re-opening 4/2/01 closing 4/22/01
Wed. - Mon. @8, Sat. @2:30, Sun. @3, $40-45

Originally reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 01/31 performance; second thoughts by Les Gutman based on 3/30 performance


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