Rich AlterTheater play confronts racism, queerness
[Woody’s Rating: ]
That’s what I’ll most remember about “Rose in America,” a new AlterTheater world premiere.
The two-act, two-hour drama explores — concomitantly — racism and queerness, anger and murder, feminism and elitism, guilt and stereotypes, history and academics, inspiration and hope.
Not to mention art, veganism and generational differences.
With humor, singing and dancing added.
With historical references to Martin Luther King, Alice Walker, Barack Obama, Malcolm X, August Wilson and Richard Wright — and a sprinkling of the n-word and a discussion of whether Flannery O’Connor’s use of “pickaninny” is a slur or literary allusion.
With a slew of Oakland-heavy geographical citations.
Plus a range that flitters from obtuse intellectualism to emotional tirades.
To say “Rose in America” is rich and ambitious would be to understate its remarkably broad survey.
Happily, most of it jelled for me.
Except for it tritely using translucent fabric as a rippling stream symbolizing the pulling of “inspiration out of misery.”
Each of the five characters are well drawn by playwright Michelle Carter, who’s had a residency at Berkeley Rep and works produced locally by the Magic and Aurora theaters and the Shotgun Players.
Much of her action revolves around Wally, a QVC addict who never sheds his pajamas.
Once upon a time, following the 1965 Selma march, he had penned a play in tribute to a real person, Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit activist and mother of five fatally shot by the KKK for transporting a black civil rights worker from Selma to Montgomery.
Charles Dean sensitively portrays the reclusive gray-hair.
Despite essayist-poet-abolitionist Henry David Thoreau being set up as a straw man, and quoted on the need to occasionally break the law, three black doctoral candidates confront the “white savior jungle” and “institutional racism” they believe Wally’s writings depict.
• Kemi (comically and poignantly nuanced by AeJay Mitchell), a gay guy with flaming orange hair who’s in line for a $20,000 grant to write a book “of LGBT interest.”
• Tisha, who, in addition to other characters actualized by Nkechi Emeruwa, is a woman of privilege riddled with guilt for once calling her black nanny Aunt Jemina.
• Anthony (Dorian Lockett), an angry 47-year-old Black Power advocate whose bipolar brother wrongly died in a jail cell and who demeans a character in Wally’s play as “subservient, ignorant and powerless…a helpless, childlike Negro.”
The fifth character, Jack (John Patrick Moore), a white teacher in a black school, is Wally’s disgruntled lover of 31 years who bemoans being merely “arms and legs and a checkbook.”
Carter’s most moving (and painful) scene occurs when racist, misogynist letters sent to Sarah Evans, Viola’s black servant and friend, are danced to and read aloud.
But striking, too, is Tisha’s donning a white mask that reflects black minstrel shows.
Neatly woven into the narrative, and evoking a sensation of unity, are several tunes (highlighted by “Oh Freedom,” with the audience joining in with rhythmic clapping, and “You Are My Sunshine”).
“Rose in America,” which emphatically examines differences and similarities among blacks, is ably directed by Regina Victoria Fields, who’s been a fellow at the California Shakespeare Theater — and assistant director for two Marin Theater Company plays, “Gem of the Ocean” and “Anne Boleyn.”
Carter’s play was developed in AlterLab, the year-long playwright residency program of AlterTheater, which since 2013 has been collaborating with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco to produce works in the latter’s Costume Shop Theater.
AlterTheater was founded in 2004 by Jeanette Harrison, who’s been unafraid to share her power — the troupe’s plays are selected by a literary committee.
“Rose,” which takes place in 2008 a month before Obama’s inauguration, isn’t flawless.
It sometimes feels episodic and choppy, and, on opening night before a packed house, was marred by too many blown lines.
Do black lives and black history matter? You bet.
But clearly, this play submits, so do white lives and white history.
“Rose in America,” which plays at the A.C.T. Costume Shop, 1117 Market St. (at 7th), San Francisco, through June 19, will be performed at 1554 4th St., San Rafael, from June 22 through July 3. Night performances in San Francisco, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinee, 5 p.m. Sunday. In San Rafael, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $25 to $40. Information: 415-454-2787 or www.altertheater.org.