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Urban Zulu Mambo
By Les Gutman
...there was a reward if one kept seeing the light and hoping.
---Adrienne Kennedy, referring to "people in fairy tales"in her book, People Who Led To My Plays
When we see the word, "Mambo", the first image that registers is of the smiling face of the inimitable, late Tito Puente. But the origin of mambo is not in the Cuban dance; it is in the Haitian voodoo priestesses from whom it derives its name. In Urban Zulu Mambo, Regina Taylor presents vivid portraits of three African-American women, each based, in turn, on the work of an African American woman playwright (Suzi-Lori Parks, Ntozake Shange and Kia Corthron). In each, we see women seeking, in their own worlds and ways, to spirit away that which plagues them.
Although Ms. Taylor conceived this project to coíncide with the millennium (it was presented at Chicago's Goodman Theatre under the title Millennium Mambo), Signature Theatre has seized upon it as a celebration in recognition of Adrienne Kennedy, its 1995-96 Playwright-in-Residence. Whereas Signature devoted each of its first nine seasons to the work of a single playwright, in honor of its tenth anniversary, it is presenting a new play by each of its previous playwrights except Ms. Kennedy. Instead, she is being recognized by this work of Ms. Taylor and her colleagues.
One could suggest that the three pieces lack much in the nature of a common theme. Yet that would seem to be a part of Ms. Taylor's point: that which perplexes African-American women is not a common force. Likewise, Parks, Shange and Corthron write in distinctly different styles. Nonetheless, one is left believing the shadow of Ms. Kennedy's contribution to our theater is cast on the entire piece. Fairy tale qualities of light and hope do not fall evenly on these women (if, indeed, on any of us).
There is no happy-ever-after for Hettie, the focus of Parks' "Talking to Jupiter," the most unimaginative, but in some ways best told of the three plays. A homeless woman, Hettie is bereft of trust as well as money; she reacts with anger and, eventually, violence. Her only companion is her dog, Jupiter, with whom she carries on an active two-way conversation. In the end, her unattainable hopes are dashed (like many of us, she wants to trade in her tiny city real estate -- in her case, a park bench -- for a nice house in the country, with a yard for her dog) and it is Hettie who bites the hand that feeds her.
Ntozake Shange lightens our load considerably in "Liliane -- Everytime My Lil' World Seems Blue, I Just Haveta Look at You and Learn Eye-Hand Coordination". An artist who picks up her pencil and draws when the rest of us might just think, Liliane's struggle is not of the same magnitude as Hettie's. Her's is not for survival, but for love. Its arc is informed by a nostalgic trip through the popular music that has marked the events of her life. Discarding the man she knows for the one she observes at an artist's distance, Liliane's fairy tale, too, can't come true, but (thanks to the Isley Brothers, not to mention Stephen Stills) she's able to see the light at the end of the tunnel: "If you can't be with the one you love... love the one you're with". You can't help but love Ms. Shange's creation.
Earthly peace is a state that will elude Rame, the young breast cancer-surviving mother in Kia Corthron's "Safe Box". The new millennium is minutes away and she vainly hopes to exorcise the demons of her past by throwing her diaries in the incinerator. She's convinced she can insulate herself and her child from the environmental insults that caused her cancer (by retreating to her imagined safe box), but of course she comes to realize she can't. This is some of Corthron's best writing ever, still cataloguing her facts and data (as is her wont) but finding in it in this short piece a particularly heightened poetry.
Regina Taylor brings great energy and an infectious vitality to all three characters. Working closely with her director, Henry Godinez, she has developed an evening that is both meaningful and entertaining -- great humor and charm mixed with its sad realizations. She brings a great deal to each character, although she seems most at home when she inhabits Liliane.
Taylor has also written a poem bearing the name of the overall piece. Parts of it are heard before, between and after the three plays. I wish I could tell you whether it nicely ties the work together, but the sound quality of these readings (they are recorded, except at the very end) is so deplorable, I wouldn't want to hazard a guess.
This sound design lapse is particularly surprising because in every other respect the show's production elements are first-rate (and even the sound quality of the extensive recorded music is just fine). G. W. Mercier's set is practically a blank gray canvas (with numerous doors and other ingenious openings), but it is brought to life by Jane Cox's especially fine lighting and extensive use of video projections (media design is by 3-Legged Dog, video design and edit by Martha Swetzoff). Brenda Rousseau's costume design, which permits Ms. Taylor to morph elegantly from one character to the next, is outstanding.
There's a great deal of integrity in what Regina Taylor has done. She may not leave us particularly uplifted, but if we are careful, perhaps we too can keep "seeing the light and hoping". As she points out at the end, it's a "dance that never ends".
Review of Suzan-Lori Park's In The Blood
Reviews of Kia Corthron's Seeking the Genesis, Splash Hatch on the E Going Down and Force Continuum