John Henry Redwood's latest paean to the strength of self-sacrificial black women is likely to become a Black History Month favorite in the regionals, as has his earlier work "The Old Settler." This new melodrama's title (which appears with asterisks in the newspaper ad, oddly deleting "Jews" too) comes from a sign seen entering a town in Mississippi in the bad old days of Jim Crow.

John Henry Redwood’s latest paean to the strength of self-sacrificial black women is likely to become a Black History Month favorite in the regionals, as has his earlier work “The Old Settler.” This new melodrama’s title (which appears with asterisks in the newspaper ad, oddly deleting “Jews” too) comes from a sign seen entering a town in Mississippi in the bad old days of Jim Crow. If “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs” has less shock value than its title, it does have sweetness, accessibility and high-mindedness to offer.

In a house in the backwoods of 1949 North Carolina, a happy couple are strictly but lovingly raising their daughters, smart, 17-year-old Joyce (the beautiful, mobile-faced Adrienne Carter) and funny, 11-year-old Matoka (the adorable and talented Charis M. Wilson). When Rawl (Marcus Naylor, who seems too loud, too twitchy) leaves for Alabama to “dig up white folks’ graves” for reasons unknown and egregiously symbolic, the inevitable trouble begins as the women are left unprotected, at the mercy of unmerciful white men who get to “talkin’ under their clothes.”

When Mattie (the luminous Elizabeth Van Dyke) is inevitably raped, and then inevitably discovers she is pregnant, she decides to protect her husband’s life by not telling him how she came to be carrying a child not his when he returns three months later. Knowing that the outcome of confession will be his attempted revenge and subsequent lynching, she swallows his inevitable rage and blame, and his inevitable departure leaves them all unhappy.

Meanwhile, a mysterious figure swathed and veiled in 19th-century black lace walks humming through the woods, stopping to pick up a basket of food Mattie leaves daily on the front steps. Aunt Cora (Rayme Cornell, another of the cast’s beauties) was raped 20 years before by the same Joe Flood who raped Mattie, and after her young husband went out with a shotgun for revenge, he was found hanging from a tree. The scenes from the past show us a laughing, singing Cora, and those sunlit memories contrast heavily with the weird, shadowy presence she has become.

The weakness in the play, besides all the inevitabilities, is the attempt to link African-Americans and Jews by linking their victimization: “I can always take off my yarmulke, God forbid, but you can’t take off your skin.” The character of Yaveni Aaronsohn, the man who escaped the Holocaust only to change his name to Jack Arnold and live as a “goy” in the Deep South, seems merely a bald contrivance. The vague “research project” that has him collecting stories from Southern blacks makes him seem meddlesome rather than interesting, an irritation made worse by Jack Aaron’s Catskills performance and exaggerated by Israel Hicks’ otherwise fine direction. The play has nothing to say about current vexed relations between the Jews and African-Americans, and compromises its sentimental strengths with this manufactured agenda.

Michael Brown’s set, although nicely evocative, uses an unnecessarily high porch on an already elevated stage, forcing the audience to watch the play at a 45-degree angle.

No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs

Plays & Players Theater, Philadelphia; 315 Seats; $40 Top

Production

A Philadelphia Theater Co. presentation of a co-production with Primary Stages of a play in two acts by John Henry Redwood. Directed by Israel Hicks.

Creative

Set, Michael Brown; costumes, Christine Field; lighting, Ann G. Wrightson; sound, Eileen Tague; stage manager, Veronic Griego; production manager, Bruce Charlick. Artistic director, Sarah Garonzik. Opened Jan. 31, 2001. Reviewed Feb. 1. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Mattie Cheeks - Elizabeth Van Dyke Rawl - Marcus Naylor Aunt Cora - Rayme Lyn Cornell Joyce - Adrienne Carter Matoka - Charis Marguerite Wilson Yaveni - Jack Aaron
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