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Open the Door, Virginia

by Sam Thielman

Upon leaving Dianne McIntyre's Open the Door, Virginia, I found myself unable to shake the idea that I had just learned something against my will. I had come to see a play, and I had found a classroom. I had, in short, been cruelly infotained.

That's not to say that Open the Door, Virginia is all bad; far from it. There's some lovely singing (all the actors have beautiful voices, and the songs are well chosen or written by Olu Dara), and the entire cast has energy and verve to spare. Which is good, because the waters of the first forty-five minutes of the play are badly muddied by a lack of a coherent theme, plot, time period, or characters. This part of the show is composed of a vague feeling that something to do with racism happened somewhere in Virginia sometime in the past, or maybe the present.

Open the Door, Virginia settles down a little bit, about an hour into the show, and the players present a multi-perspective narration of the "Davis v. Prince Edward County" story (intertwined with "Brown v. Board of Education") from Virginians who found themselves involved therein. Most of the words in the anecdotes and monologues are taken from interviews compiled by McIntyre, and make for interesting material -- but probably not as interesting as the interviewing process itself (or reading the interviews, or watching them on television, or listening to them on tape). The moral of the story is fairly obvious, and it's a little painful to be beaten with it as spoken, sung, and danced at the audience, and gobbos that say things like "whites only" are projected onto the set. The title is Open the Door, Virginia. We get it.

While this play communicates an important message that message is so clear to most people that propping up the arguments against Jim Crow with a play is a little like staging a campaign for office on the Adult Literacy platform. Sure, it's an issue, but does anyone really take issue against it?

Ultimately, McIntyre's piece argues so hard for desegregation that it's difficult to take it seriously. The battle has been fought and won. In her director's notes, she claims that she has no "political or social motives," only that "these stories need to be told." Tell them she does, but she never tells the audience why, other than politics, she would be telling them. Nor does she offer them the luxury of discernible characters, a vital part of a story that does not want to come off as a sermon.

The most interesting part of the story is the character (played by Steven Butler along with a number of other roles) in modern-day garb who soft-shoes onto the stage saying, "School? I don't need no school!" at poignant intervals, usually during the play's most tender moments. McIntyre recognizes this character -- but she doesn't know what to do with him, and seems uncomfortable attributing to him any motivations other than laziness, ignorance, or greed. Surely not every dropout is that simple.

The play owes a glaring debt to Ntozake Shange, right down to the description of the work as a "choreodrama," as opposed to Shange's choreopoems (or, oh, say, a play). Its extensively choreographed chantings and monologues fit together in a way that is almost exclusive to Shange's work, without the involving characterization.

McIntyre does manage some fun and interesting moments and she clearly has an ear for dialogue. Though she picks her anecdotes well, they don't really cohere until nearly an hour into the 90-minute piece. One of the best is about an elderly black woman who noticed that white folks would call her "Auntie" to avoid the more deferential "ma'am." Smilingly noting that her memory was not what it used to be, she would ask, "Which one of my brother's children are you?"

McIntyre and her cast handle the whole event with a fundamental good nature and keep sentimentality from overrunning the troubling subject matter. They do no harm. What they can't quite manage, however, is a cohesive presentation of anything more than fact and quotation, with some interesting singing and step-showy choreography. There's a heavy obstacle in the way -- a stony need to educate that trips up the flow of a potentially compelling narrative. Let's call it the schoolhouse rock.

Open the Door, Virginia
Written and Directed by Dianne McIntyre
with Nyahale Allie, Steven A. Butler, Jr., Joy Jones, Joseph W. Lane, Jr., Wendell Jordan, and Tryphena Wade
Original Music by Olu Dara
Running Time: 90 minuteswith no intermission
A production of Theater of the First Amendment
George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax
Telephone: 703-993-8888
WED - FRI 8PM; $25
Opening 01/12/05, closing 02/06/05
Reviewed by Sam Thielman on January 12th
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