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SPIRITED 'PASTURES'

THE GREEN PASTURES

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WHAT: Based on Marc Connelly's 1930 play, a retelling of Old Testament stories through the eyes of ordinary Southern blacks.

WHEN: Through Oct. 14

WHERE: Ujima Company, 545 Elmwood Ave.

ADMISSION: $16 to $22

INFO: 883-0380< Ujima Company opened its new season last weekend with an immensely satisfying production of Marc Connelly's "The Green Pastures" in an adaptation by Lorna C. Hill. Written in 1930, the play won a Pulitzer prize and was later made into a widely popular movie.

But there's no way around it: Any production of the play will be somewhat problematic. Connelly was white and so was Roark Bradford, the author of "Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillun," on which the stage version was based. According to all reports, both men went to great lengths to achieve authenticity and ensure respect for their subjects. (Bradford had the advantage of growing up on his father's plantations where he encountered Southern black preachers, musicians and storytellers.)

Still, they couldn't entirely avoid the prevailing patronizing attitude of their day toward African-Americans. The fact is Connelly, like Bradford before him, was dealing in stock black types who talked in caricatured black dialect. This is tough stuff to present in an age when a benign Aunt Jemima figure can raise hackles.

Fortunately, the music of the piece -- the great spirituals that weave in and out of the narrative -- have long been accepted at face value, with no lingering sense that they need to be "adjusted" for the times. Hill, who also directs, seems to sense that the play can be treated similarly.

Obviously, she recognized the wonderfully imaginative thinking that went into the play and the endlessly engaging characters this thinking produced. Whatever her alteration of the original, there's no hedging here, no clumsy updating. It's done straight, complete with dialect and stereotypical posturing.

Not to play down its many humorous and charming moments, part of what makes the Ujima production so effective is its almost stately rhythm. Events unhurriedly unfold, lending an all-embracing dignity to this passel of lively individuals -- angels, poor folk and evil-doers alike.

The choir helped immensely with this tone. Rodney Appleby's music direction is superb (even when he committed something close to sacrilege by rewriting "Amazing Grace"). The choir, its lovely close harmonies wafting through the theater, ties together the evolving story and, like a Greek chorus, makes the events seem fateful and right. This happens even with a god -- otherwise known as "de Lawd" -- who has the all-too human traits of vacillation and self-doubt.

Setting aside some opening-night hitches and awkward staging, the big marvelous cast seemed swept up in the ripe fullness of the play. Dwight Simpson, with his round cherubic face and beatific close-mouthed smile, is the ideal Lord. I would have liked to have seen a bit more fire at times, especially when he dispensed the Lord's highly touted wrath, and maybe he could have occasionally departed from his Lordly stance. But he convinces and charms as a somewhat bungling god who gets himself in trouble by doing too much or too little.

All the worthies of this cast can't be mentioned. But deserving special notice are Larry S. Sayres as the Sunday school teacher and Olurotimi Akanbi, who with his off-kilter comic sense steals a couple of scenes as the stuttering, bellowing or staggering Moses. Besides dancing a wildly upbeat version of "Go Down Moses" lead Babylon Gal, Maisha Davis-Pierce, did a great slinkily evil Zeba, plus was the choreographer for the show.

Other standouts include Jermain Cooper, Donald Capers, Hugh Davis, Jonathan K. Lee and Michael Lee as the self-effacing Gabriel.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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