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Theater review

"Matter of Intent" **

Drama presented by Ujima Theatre Company

Continues through April 24 in TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave. 883-0380.

Mae Lou is found kneeling over her boss' bloody, dead body. She is holding the knife that killed her. She sings "Jesus Loves Me" with choruses of sobs and tears of sorrow. By all accounts, Mae Lou McKitchen, a young black housemaid of limited intelligence and staggered speech, appears guilty of murder. She even apologizes for the death.

But did she commit the crime? "Matter of Intent," a drama by renowned local writer and professor Gary Earl Ross, is a three-hour account of a crime without a witness, a society without perspective, and a criminal justice system that is anything but just.

Unfortunately, nearly every moment in Ross' otherwise moving story falls victim to another kind of injustice: movie-of-the-week cliche. With equal parts "Law and Order" and "Desperate Housewives" -- a reference I am reluctant though required to make -- "Matter of Intent" holds not the sort of gripping suspense, nor social commentary, that it might think. Which is not to downplay its significance, theatrically or historically.

The plot, though familiar and typical of many '60s-era race dramas, is compounded and complex: A sweet, meek young black girl works for an uppity suburban white family; the white wife (Mary Moebius, perfect as Kate Wayborn) befriends the black housemaid, professing to her socialite, martini-swigging friends that she's sweet and smart and lovely "and fabulous in the kitchen."

"She's a disgrace to her own kind," her best friend snickers back.

We're led to believe that the white woman is honorable for breaking the sheltered neighborhood's invisible yet charged racial boundaries, while the black maid is proven to be smarter than she looks, despite her menial job and limited world experience. The stereotypes are all so conflicting and degrading that you wonder how more people don't become insulted at the notion of such a premise. Black does not equal limited, and white does not equal noble. The same stereotypes this story tries to squash, it has its hand in creating.

Lorna C. Hill, artistic and executive director of Ujima Theatre Company, plays Buffalo attorney Temple Scott. She's rough, she's determined, and she's going to win her case. She is the opposite of Mae Lou, played so finely and with much tenderness by Rahwa Ghirmatzion. She is the black woman who prevailed and made it in her profession, becoming one of a handful of local black female attorneys.

Yet she faces opposition from the district attorney (Dan Walker), who slyly tries to convince Temple not to take the case. It would belittle "her kind," he says. "It's a murder, not a civil rights sit-in," he says.

Adding complications is a series of plot points and pratfalls that go far beyond any realistic scenario. Just when it seems the entire case is about race, our carefully pondered predictions are turned upside down in a second-act twist. Yet when that twist is revealed and the dust after the shock settles, a third defensive argument arises.

Mae Lou's case holds not an ounce of water until the final witness testimony, where a breakdown of Matlock proportions serves the jury its remaining puzzle piece.

When all is said and done, Ross gives us a trilogy of legal defenses; an emotional first act that is, while heartbreaking, pretty gratuitous in parts, and a set of characters that were based in the reality of the '60s yet pose little literary inspiration today.

That said, with the intent to move an unmovable society along, such a story has its merits. Certainly, the idea that the American legal and penal systems are not remotely fair is one worth raising at every chance. And as long as black and white are referred to independently of each other, separate and not equal will remain our national default.

In 2005, we're capable of more realistic stories in which whites and blacks conquer racial injustice together. If it's going to work offstage, it should at least work on stage.

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