The Ujima Company's production of "The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show," by Atlanta-born playwright Carlyle Brown, beautifully evokes, if such an adverb can apply, the soul-grinding misery and terror produced among ordinary men by the racism of their countrymen.
Brown is an artist. He has an artist's vision, an artist's understanding of the meaning of things. He is also a very gifted writer whose intelligence is bone-bred. So he conveys not only the moment in question with all of its specific and concrete references, but suggests the terrible and million implications of all such moments, across all space and throughout all time.
The story concerns a group of black men who live in a private Pullman railroad car that carries them through cities and towns in which the car unhooks so that the men can go off to perform minstrel shows for mostly white audiences. This is how they make their living. They perform as white folks' caricatures of colored people -- shiny black, black faces; big white lips and mittened hands; nappy wigs, orange satin silly-suits, names like "Rastus." It's self-abusive and humiliating but it is also a historic tradition among black entertainers of that period, and the irony of the whole situation isn't lost on them, of course.
That's what's so wonderful about this play. Brown takes the history of a little-known tradition and populates it with wonderfully bright characters who, for all the oppression they suffer, are funnier, smarter and far more compassionate than their self-styled "betters" and travel with a host of methods for protecting themselves against whitey's brutality and bigotry.
The battle for self in which these men engage, their tales of the road, songs of the self and sometimes bitter, sometimes horrified and sometimes sweet and hilarious interaction with one another, make up the content of the play. The denouement, when it comes, made my blood run cold and my heart break. I am not a black man, of course, or even a black woman.
The universal application of the principles articulated by Brown, the marvelous dialogue, splendid acting and fine direction by first-time director Roosevelt Tidwell III, however, combined to make this one of the most moving experiences I've had in the theater. Thank you, gentlemen. And thank you, Adam Giradet and Tim Newell, for a wonderful set design -- neat and of necessity sooty, sort of like the lives our characters lead.
The players include young Olurotimi "Tim" Akanbi as Archie, a sweet, slow, shy, illiterate innocent who is about to find out how the world really operates. I simply loved his performance. It was charming and deeply affecting. I think this young man bears watching.
Kinzy Brown crafts a sensitive, mature, thoughtful wisdom from his role of Doc, another character whom I loved from the moment he looked up from his desk in the first moments of the play. Good man. You can just tell, OK?
Hugh Edward Davis plays Tambo, the handsome, witty, decent young buck who does a mean "Cake Walk" -- beaten only by Archie in a marvelous and funny light moment that demonstrates how humor lightens the load these boys bear. Very nice work by Davis.
The role of Henry is played by Gerald C. Ramsey, a guy who has been-there-done-that-and-then-went-back-again. He's a bit older, a little more cynical, but tends to rev up his engines with loud storytelling -- a bit over-the-top, I thought, or perhaps that kind of playing on his part is simply sustained too long. Needs a bit of mood fluctuation. He is quite powerful in Act 2, however.
Dwight E. Simpson plays Archie, a bitter young man, full of rage and grief over the life he's forced to lead, the garbage he swallows, the myth of the stupid, gullible nigger he purveys to put food in his mouth. He hates it all and he's bursting out of his own soul over the lack of recourse. The center of attention, although he doesn't appear early in the play, is Percy, played by Rodney Appleby -- a great performance as the thoughtless hothead who has a terrible secret that has made him a myth and something far worse.
Finally there's Baker, the white agent who deals with the white theater owners who'll book minstrels but wouldn't sit at the same table with them.
These characters bleat and blend, fight and dance. They respond to the times in which they live and struggle over their conflicting approaches to a world that allows them to venture only to the limits of racial propriety and then very, very carefully. We see and feel the pain of millions who are not in charge as they deal with astonishing decency with the deceit, cruelty and ignorance of those who are.
A wonderful experience, I thought. A fine play as well.
The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show
Rating:* * * * Drama by Carlyle Brown about the internal conflicts of a traveling minstrel man. Directed by Roosevelt Tidwell III for Ujima Theatre Company, featuring Gerald C. Ramsey, Dwight E. Simpson, Kinzy Brown, Rodney Appleby, Hugh Edward Davis, Tim Newell and Olurotimi "Tim" Akanbi.
Performances continue Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Sunday at 6 p.m., through April 12. TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave. (883-0380).