Regina Taylor’s “Urban Zulu Mambo,” which she conceived and performs, features a poem by Taylor that weaves its way in and out of three short pieces by Suzan-Lori Parks, Ntozake Shange and Kia Corthron. The three protags are black women living in the city, but beyond that, you may wonder what they’re doing on the same stage. Taylor’s title poem, read in snippets throughout the evening, is a kind of literary glue meant to cement the disparate pieces. But it isn’t much help: “They have weathered and witnessed and survived through storms and all, shining black women with fire in their eyes joined in a dance that never ends.”
Parks has the dubious distinction of being first in this collection of stories. In nearly any legit anthology, the initial offering is often the weakest, the logic being that it is better to begin with a whimper than end with one.
Taylor, though, is going for the big bang with her placement of Parks’ drama. She means to grab our collective social conscience and give it a good shaking before we’ve kicked the snow off our boots and settled in for the evening.
In “Talking to Jupiter,” the homeless woman Hettie sleeps on a bench in Central Park and keeps a pet dog named Jupiter. She ends up losing her only companion to the city pound, which leads to Hettie’s stabbing a guilt-ridden matron who commits the sin of offering a handout.
“Jupiter” is meant to be tough theater, but it comes off as merely tough theater to perform. As soon as she appears onstage, Taylor owns the space — in this case, G.W. Mercier’s radically raked and angular high-walled set.
But this formidable actress’s overpowering presence acquires an unwieldy, almost amorphous quality that doesn’t allow her to delineate the piece’s characters (two humans and a dog).
There is also a third-person narrator for Taylor to play, and most of the action comes to us third-person, which works only to further defuse the drama. What is clearly meant to be a wake-up call quickly turns soporific.
Taylor wraps a brightly colored scarf around her waist to create a new persona in the evening’s second offering, Shange’s “Liliane — Everytime My Lil’ World Seems Blue, I Just Have Ta Look at You and Learn Eye-Hand Coordination.” The artist Liliane, who may or may not be an ardent feminist, fears that her infatuation with a male model borders on the pornographic.
Fortunately, Liliane doesn’t worry for long, and decides to go with her newfound erotic fixation, albeit from a distance. It’s a charming piece of writing, but that may not be the intent of everyone involved here. It’s also mercifully shorter and infinitely less pretentious than Shange’s title, and replete with beloved R&B standards.
The best piece is the last. With “Safe Box,” Corthron provides a dramatic situation — and standard issue though it is, it’s something of a novelty in this context.
Taylor responds to the material with a genuine performance lit by an eccentric, febrile energy. Rame, a woman with cancer, frantically searches for the source of her disease through old diary entries. From a missing breast prosthesis to the many notebooks she discards into the fire, Corthron delivers an absurdist vision of personal desperation that Taylor forces to vivid life.
Director Henry Godinez has taken some cues from, of all visionaries, George Orwell. A kind of benevolent Big Sister, the Urban Zulu watches much of the action, her roving giant eyes projected overhead in a video by Martha Swetzoff. Plumes of industrial waste in “Safe Box” and hordes of passing strangers in “Talking to Jupiter” crawl across the walls in slow motion. Upstage, behind a glass door, a hologram-like figure dances as the title poem is read aloud.
If Taylor’s point is that these women dance their dance in an alien environment, the team of Godinez, Mercier and Swetzoff has created the perfect dystopian cityscape. Unfortunately, at evening’s end, Taylor escapes through that upstage glass door into an Eden right out of Rousseau by way of Maurice Sendak.
The evening was conceived as a tribute to Adrienne Kennedy, one of the playwrights to whom the Signature Theater Co. has devoted a seasonlong retrospective. Kennedy had contributed a piece to “Millennium Mambo,” an earlier incarnation of “Urban Zulu Mambo,” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. But Kennedy withdrew her contribution, “Motherhood 2000,” before Taylor’s work opened at the Signature.