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A CurtainUp Review
 . . even if Aymes did help create his own celebrity. . . when he sat down and wrote his book. . . did he know then that it was his celebrity that was about to distract his audience from his art. . . thus all he would be left with was his celebrity?
---The Moderator
Anthony Mackie, Maria Tucci, Reg E. Cathey, Karen Kandel,  John Seitz
L-R: Anthony Mackie, Maria Tucci, Reg E. Cathey, Karen Kandel, John Seitz
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Welcome to Lit 101 in Literati Name Dropping. Talk, Carl Hancock Rux 's pretend (and, alas, pretentious) symposium on a fictional poet-novelist-filmmaker doesn't miss a prominent real name from the mid-21st century. At three hours, this talkathon billed as "a historical, theatrical exploration of identity, art and the eternal challenge of forging both" à la Plato's dialogues on Socrates is more animated biographical dictionary than play and about double the length it should be.

And yet . . .  maybe the above is unfair. After all, with the distinguished director Marion McClinton at the helm and a cast that includes Maria Tucci and Mabou Mines' Karen Kandel all the elements of a play are in place. There's also James Noone's set, its floors covered with phrases that spill into the aisles, to contribute to the current crop of spectacular looking production currently at the Public Theater (see, 36 Views and Helen ). Considering that Rux's reputation as "a young artist to watch" is predicated on his endeavors as a multi-disciplinary artist, maybe the eye-filling stagecraft and the often witty dialogue should be sufficient to overlook the uncontrolled sprawl of ideas that sent at least ten percent of the audience heading for the exit at the midpoint intermission.

The symposium that serves as Rux's dramatic setup is located at The Museum of Antiquities with the characteristics of and objects from a long ago world. This establishes a connection between Plato and the artists invited to discuss the life (including his death in a Southern prison) and work of an African American artist alliteratively named Archer Aymes.

Aymes was one of those instant celebrities who burst into the limelight after publishing a short novel while still a student at Columbia University. He made a very different kind of news when at age forty he was arrested as part of a Civil Rights march and found dead in a jail cell, an apparent suicide.

The Greek connection is self-consciously reinforced by giving all the panelists names from classical literature. All have a direct connection to Aymes, except the moderator (Anthony Mackie), who is a would-be follower in his footsteps:
  • Ion (James Himelsbach) is a journalist, editor, translator, literary critic and author of a soon-to-be-published biography of Aymes.
  • Phaedo (Maria Tucci) is a filmmaker, film historian and erstwhile student. She collaborated with Aymes on the filmed version of his novel, Mother and Son), also playing the leading role.
  • Meno (John Seitz) is a former talk show host who knew everybody who was anybody which of course included Aymes.
  • Crito (Reg E. Cathey) a civil rights activist who talks the talk as in street talk, and whose career as a much recorded musician was launched by his Mother and Son, Volume I made after his last encounter with Aymes on the 1968 Mule Train March.
  • Apollodoros (Karen Kandel) a performance artist who hovers around the edges of the symposium and not surprisingly turns out to be more closely connected to Aymes than any of the others
It should also come as no surprise that Aymes' single but celebrity-making work was autobiographical. Yet, even when the secrets of his conflict with identity (think Anatole Broyard, the critic whose African-American heritage did not come to light until after his death) and his relationship with art and celebrity are finally unraveled, there simply isn't anyone -- not Aymes, not one of these bright, argumentative symposium participants -- who comes alive as anything but a bloviator.

The dramaturgical shortcomings and Mr. McClinton's failure to reign in some of the excesses notwithstanding, the talk in Talk brims with some sharp and purposefully pompous exchanges. Each actor gets and makes the most of some outstanding moments. Jon's turn at the podium at the side of the main playing area includes a laugh-aloud link between Aymes' work and hip-hop, illustrated with the Rapper Jay-Z's "sampled" and "recontextualized" version of "Hard Knocks in Life" from Annie.

The ongoing hostility between Phaedo and Ion also makes for some amusing exchanges; for example, when Phaedo accuses Ion of not having any "real language for criticism" he snaps back "What I have is two PHDs, thirty years of experience, common sense and my sanity! How about you lady?" -- to which the lady calmly declares "I have tenure!!!"

What all the panelists have plenty of is the ability to promote their own interests at the slightest opportunity. John Seitz's Meno, who represents the American success ethos, gets to drop the most celebrity names into his ever present personal asides. When at one point he impatiently declares: "yak, yak, yak yak" he also sums up much about the play he's in.

Carl Hancock Rux
Directed by Marion McClinton
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Maria Tucci, Reg E. Cathey, Karen Kandel, John Seitz
Set Design: James Noone
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: James L. Vermeulen
Sound Design: Tim Schellenbaum
Video: Marilys Ernst
Running Time: 3 hours, including 1 15-minute intermission
Public Theatre/NYSF, 425 Lafayette St. 800-965-4827 or
3/29/02-4/28/01; opening 4/09/02.
Tues-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2pm -- $35.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 5th press preview
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