It's fitting that during Black History Month the Paul Robeson Theatre explores racial issues with the intense drama "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs."
The provocative title of the play by the late John Henry Redwood is a direct quote from actual signs that were posted in the United States at one time. And the play contains history lessons that, production director Edward G. Smith says, many people -- African-American or not -- never learned.
"The actors I am working with are young," he said. "The play is set in 1949 North Carolina. . . . Schools today don't teach African-American history the way that they should, so young people are not learning about it."
Smith now resides in Philadelphia, but he lived in Buffalo for many years. He founded the Buffalo Black Drama Workshop in 1969, and he directed and taught here throughout the next 25 years. He worked with Kavinoky Theatre, Studio Arena Theatre and Ujima Company, and he was a full professor at the University at Buffalo.
Describing some of the responsibilities of directing, he said: "I look at myself as the eyes of the audience. I try to be truthful to the words on the script, to the writer's work. It's challenging, because it is a complicated play for inexperienced actors -- there is a teaching process as well."
He feels that the discomfort that people may feel when saying or seeing the title is not the point; more pertinent is the topic of the play.
"Redwood has not made us say the word as much as made us see the sign," Smith said. "He used it in the title because of history. No one calls anyone else by that word in the play; they only refer to the sign."
The play, which premiered in Philadelphia in 2001, tells the story of the Cheeks family, headed by parents Mattie (played by Renita Shadwick) and Rawl (Ozzie Lumpkin). While part of it deals with the dramatic events that happen around and to this family, another element is added with the introduction of a Jewish character, Yaveni (Guy Wagner). He is a scholar who arrives to study the connection and similarities between the black and Jewish experience in the United States.
Smith said that it is educational to show the struggles side by side.
"An interesting thing about the play is that it puts blacks and Jews together in a situation about the South," he said. "While Jews had comparable problems to the black people, we don't usually hear about them in this context."
Addressing the value of a play like this for audiences, Smith said that theater is an important way to keep cultural information valid.
"Theater should deal with social and political issues," he said. "It's good for Paul Robeson Theatre to address them. A lot of people come to the theater to be entertained, but it's not always about that. Some come to be made aware of issues and culture -- we need awareness, we need the identity of who we are. That is what theater can do for us."
WHAT: "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" by John Henry Redwood
WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday; continuing through March 5
WHERE: Paul Robeson Theatre at the African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.
TICKETS: $12 to $22