The title of the Paul Robeson Theatre's latest production, "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs," by the late John Henry Redwood, is certainly provocative. Some newspapers still refuse to print the title and a Philadelphia cast referred to the work as "The No Play."
But, Charles McNulty of the Village Voice rightly said that "the bark of the play's title is worse than its bite." I found that to be so.
The play is a front-porch tale, set in 1949 rural Halifax, N.C., a nightmare ZIP code for blacks who lived in a world of separate entrances and exits, white-only bathrooms and drinking fountains and back-of-the-bus transportation. Once, in Rocky Mount, N.C., in the mid-1950s, I was told by a stately old black gentleman that I couldn't use a locker to stash my military duffel bag. "This part of the building is for colored folks only," he told me. It was my first, not my last, introduction to overt Jim Crow.
Playwright Redwood's story opens on a small house in the woods around Halifax, home to Mattie and Rawl Cheeks and their two daughters, the precocious Matoka and the more introverted, 17-year old Joyce. Two other characters frequent the house: strange Aunt Cora, wraithlike and veiled, humming a tuneless tune and appearing from time to time -- "We love you, Aunt Cora!" the family hollers after her -- and a Jewish scholar ostensibly in Halifax to do research on racial prejudice against blacks and Jews, Yaveni Aaronsohn. Mattie rules the roost and rages against Yaveni's usually inopportune intrusions but she has a heart of gold and can seemingly forgive anything and anyone. The woman is a saint.
There is lots of talk. We learn some family secrets, Rawl calls for daily hugfests, Aunt Cora hums, Matoka is quick with a comeback, Joyce is wary and is counting the days until somewhere -- anywhere -- beckons. Yaveni snoops. Mattie the matriarch choreographs.
Trouble starts when Rawl leaves to take a second job for three months. Alone in the sticks, Mattie is raped by redneck Joe Flood, a thug despised even by his white cronies. Mattie, soon pregnant, swears her daughters to secrecy because of history: black vengeance seekers for such outrages always end up hanging from a tree. Aunt Cora somehow learns of the deed and Yaveni drops in and eavesdrops. Mattie asks him, "Did you hear or were you listening?"
Rawl returns only to leave for good. Mattie is crushed but tells all that she'll "take the rage her man can't let loose anywhere else." There is resolution and a possible Cheeks reunion up North. And we finally learn more about Yaveni. In long flashback minutes, he speaks of Russian pogroms, describing a lifetime of deceit pretending to be a gentile, ultimately coming to grips with who he is when he encountered in Mississippi a city limits sign obviously not placed by the Chamber of Commerce: "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs." Tearing it down with his bare hands, Yaveni was dismayed to find it back up the next day. Give the guy credit for some chutzpah though. He walked around Halifax wearing a yarmulke.
Edward G. Smith, a former Western New York director of great renown and an actor of legend, returns to the Robeson to direct the Redwood play. His cast is fine -- except for a quibble or two: Renita Shadwick and Ozzie Lumpkin are Mattie and Rawl. For the most part they seem real and Shadwick's long Mattie minutes are moving and often powerful. June L. Saunders Duell is Aunt Cora and Guy Wagner alternates between a loon and a loyal friend effectively. Wagner, in lengthy monologue, excellently, albeit belatedly, gives Yaveni purpose.
Briand Taylor and Verneice Taylor, as siblings Matoka and Joyce, are periodic distractions. Briand, wonderfully talented, nevertheless slips in and out of character; Verneice, always precise and a praised Robeson veteran of many years experience, is asked to play 17-year-old Joyce. Audiences are asked to "suspend disbelief." It's too much to ask here.
Other than a glacial pace, Mr. Smith's leadership is stellar.
The shack-in-the-woods set is by Harlan Penn.
In the end, "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" is, as director Smith insists, "a love story." And those stories, with forgiveness as a partner, are always welcomed.
"No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs"
Drama by John Henry Redwood, directed by Edward G. Smith
Paul Robeson Theatre, African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave., through March 5. 884-2013.