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The Alleyway Theatre's penchant for "the best plays you've never seen," as the sign on its entrance states, began some 20 years ago with the late Maxim Mazumdar, an actor and wannabe playwright from Newfoundland, of all places.

Mazumdar convinced Alleyway impresario Neal Radice to provide a forum for new writers -- a not totally altruistic plan because Max had a suitcase full of his own ideas. It wasn't long before fledgling playwrights were at the door; they were heard and even the estimable Eric Bentley found a stage for a scholarly Oscar Wilde piece. The "Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition" was born.

Since then, the tireless Radice and his Alleyway team have read hundreds of scripts -- some forgettable, many worthy -- sweat-laced pages sent through the mail or passed furtively on the street. The latest of these, Michael Bettencourt's "A Question of Color," has just opened a month's run after winning the new work competition a year ago.

Bettencourt is not entirely an unknown to Buffalo producers; the New Phoenix Theatre is familiar with his writing, and Radice himself included two Bettencourt one-acts in a program earlier this year.

Most new plays are works in progress, of course, but happily, "A Question of Color" showed only a few hints of recent rewrite at its first performance.

The story is based on a novel of the same title by Sara Smith-Beattie, a tale of black-white marriage in the Appalachian hills of 1907 North Carolina. The struggle of John and Susan Morgan to survive miscegenation laws -- those written and unwritten -- is reportedly true. Director Radice maintains that this stage version remains "essentially faithful" to the facts.

John Wicks, a white mountain lad not used to the ways of the world, decides to rest near a stream one day and looking yonder, spots a wildly pretty black girl named Susan Morgan. Susan is the backwoods equivalent of streetwise -- no-nonsense and wary, particularly suspicious of John and his pithy hill talk. The couple, both orphans, speak from afar and there is some spark.

Before long, an unlikely bond -- not yet love -- develops. Susan sees trouble ahead. Her father had given her one bit of advice: "Your color is like nails through your hand," he said. Words to live by for a black girl in the early 20th century American South, just now about to leave for greener pastures with a gangling white boy in tow.

Their travels take them only to the other side of the mountain, but luckily they meet Aunt Becky, benefactor to the needy, a self-ordained minister and forest philosopher. Becky marries John and Susan, and John takes the Morgan name as his own. Becky protects the lovers but her own woes with a white landowner, a Big Daddy-type bully, cause everyday friction. The Morgan union mightily contributes to the tension and brings out the bigots by the score.

Time passes, babies are born and the Morgans prosper, thanks to Becky's will and some other murkier dealings. "A Question of Color" becomes just a bit difficult to follow -- John's sudden business success, for example -- but the story is no less interesting.

There is much sadness at the end, but playgoers should discover the details for themselves. The pervasive sense of foreboding throughout the night finally surfaces. Lessons are learned, common humanity is underscored but, like the saying goes, the truth will set you free, but first, be ready for pain.

Radice has assembled a fine cast, all newcomers to the Alleyway. Maisha Azadi Davis is a wonderful Susan -- tart-tongued, world-wise, sassy and sensual, catlike and in control. Very impressive. Andrew Michalski's John is a likable clod and grows up greatly as the story ages, his puzzlement with life in general and the mercurial Susan in particular are obvious and touching. Nice work.

Radice also gets very fine performances from Pat Armstrong, as Aunt Becky, and David Hallatt, doubling as the lecher Goforth and the redneck fool, Bolling. Betsy Bittar has excellent moments as Mrs. Goforth and Ernest Griffin, the longtime Paul Robeson Theatre veteran, is along as the menacing overseer, Deacon Bell.

"A Question of Color," with hand-clappin' spirituals at intervals, snippets of a Greek chorus at others, a utilitarian set by Todd Warfield -- earthy, tiered -- and costumes by Joyce Stilson, gets talky on occasion but it is a minor distraction.

Maxim Mazumdar would be pleased at this wise choice by the Alleyway.



* * *

World premiere drama by Michael Bettencourt.

Starring Maisha Azadi Davis, Andrew Michalski and Pat Armstrong: Directed by Neal Radice.

Through Oct. 6 in the Alleyway Threatre, one Curtain Up Alley.

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