THE STY OF THE BLIND PIG ***
WHAT: Allegorical story about a family and a blues singer, by Phillip Hayes Dean
WHEN: Through March 11
WHERE: Ujima Company, Theatreloft, 545 Elmwood Ave.
ADMISSION: $15 to $18
Ujima Theatre Company's current production, "The Sty of the Blind Pig," directed by Phillip Knoerzer, is good Buffalo theater. Unfortunately, fewer than 20 people were on hand to watch it on a recent weekend performance. It is sad that a theater the caliber of Ujima is struggling so hard to survive.
During intermission, Executive Director Lorna C. Hill made a gentle plea for support. Survival of a more personal sort is at the core of "The Sty of the Blind Pig." Written by Phillip Hayes Dean, the play was once a part of the repertoire of New York's famous Negro Ensemble Theatre. It's a challenging piece, an intricate psychodrama with choppy, sparse stage action that relies on the strength of the characters to make its point. The title itself is intimidating: the program notes that "Blind Pig" was a "house of ill repute, where women, whiskey and food were sold."
The story is threaded with suggestions of the supernatural and elements of the simply human, components that often signify the African American experience on stage.
Set in 1950s Chicago, just prior to the first groundswell of the civil rights movement, it offers another perspective to the historical drama currently running in the Paul Robeson Theatre. Both plays are set in the same city at the same time. While "Mississippi and the Face of Emmett Till" spotlights a terrible event that sparked the civil rights era, "The Sty of the Blind Pig" sheds light on the psyche of ordinary African Americans who fled the South, with Jim Crow demons dragging behind, to escape systemic racism. These are the people who made the movement go.
The play's characters could easily be stereotypes, but are instead intimate individual portraits of black life in America: They are just people, and they are people many of us know well.
Roughly, "The Sty of the Blind Pig" is about weeping purple angels, unrequited love and triple zeros. It centers on a mother and her daughter and brother, and a blind blues singer, a stranger, who appears at the door one day looking for an allegorical Grace Waters. The cast does a good job of giving dimension to the four characters.
As Alberta Warren - the dutiful old maid daughter who works during the day as a domestic, goes to church in the evening, and nips whiskey in between to soothe her nerves - Penny Judson projects an appropiate resignation and weariness. Although her performance is uneven, it's also emotionally convincing.
Hugh Davis is good in the role of Doc, uncle and brother, and gingerly keeps the peace between his feuding sister and niece. Davis is easy on stage - in one scene he dropped a prop and, without missing a cue, located the bottle cap under the table, moved the chair, retrieved it and rolled on. He delivers his well-timed comedic punch lines without compromising the integrity of his character.
As Blind Jordan, Dwight E. Simpson makes you believe his character is really blind, which is a credit to both his talent and Knoerzer's direction. Simpson also carries off fairly well his Jordan's metamorphosis from flesh and blood to allegorical figment.
But it is Beverly J. Dove who steals the show. As the irascible, overbearing Weedy Warren, Dove creates a fully three-dimensional character whose self-righteous piety is surpassed by only the weight of the skeletons in her closet.
It is surprising to see that Dove - when she takes her bows - is actually much younger than the matriarchal martyr she is playing on the stage, so convincing are her stooped waddle, elder's groans of disapproval and lip-pursing lamentations. She manages to imbue Weedy with both deep frailty and tremendous strength and instill in the audience both compassion for and disapproval of the character.
Although the play's ending could be stronger, Knoerzer's competent direction and a realistic set, complete with what looks like an authentic icebox, round out the production nicely. In the spirit of Black History Month, buy a ticket and go see this play.