New Ishmael Reed Play Debuts at Black Rep: By KEN BULLOCKSpecial to the Planet

By KEN BULLOCKSpecial to the Planet
Friday November 26, 2004

Who’s Who in the Tough Love Game—Ishmael Reed’s “serious comedy” at the Black Repertory Group—opens with a strange tableau, a wild variety of figures posed in front of an American flag and a chart reading “Only Foundation Agenda.” 

The group includes a s eated Klansman holding a microphone, interviewing a professional black woman; a middle-aged, bearded white man in tie-dye and huaraches, impatient on his cellphone; and a black man dozing on a couch, hat pulled over his brow, while a well-dressed black wo man stands over him, steaming. 

Taking it all in, with a weary shake of his head, is an older black man in a business suit, who introduces himself as Cicero Cincinnatus (played by N. Bruce Williams, who also directed the play), “a Republican—party of Linc oln and Douglas.”  

Cicero is an orator indeed. He explains to us he’s a ‘60s Republican, a friend of Nixon (who was, after all, photographed with Dr. King—yet still “took a leaf from George Wallace’s Southern strategy.”) 

Whereas liberals’ “answer to so cial problems,” Cicero explains, “was to pay attention just when they wanted our votes . . . [otherwise] throw money at them,” the old conservatives could offer more (or as Wadsworth Cornilee (Clint Cartridge) puts it after he breaks ranks, the receptions were better, “not just cheese and crackers”). 

But after “the intellectual counter-revolution,” a new breed has taken over: “They think that everybody but them should fend for themselves,” that Reagan didn’t even tip the porters on the train; “no wonder they called him Dutch.” But Reagan “turned out like Nebuchadnezzar, unable himself to appreciate all the splendor.” 

Cicero had been given a fellowship “by Old Man Only” with the Only Foundation, a conservative think tank that preaches that black people are their own worst enemy. But with the father’s death, the yuppie son, Bradley Only Jr. (“Masz” Maszewski, in the tie-dye and on his cellphone with his frat bro, Bush Jr.), an ex-surfer, has taken over the foundation and is downsizing. This has started a cutthroat flurry among the other black fellows, each trying to discredit the others and make the cut. 

They’re all introduced, doing their jobs of giving disinformation: Wadsworth Cornilee (dozing on the couch) and his fashionable wife Kornalessa (played with elan by Pheleta Santos) and their African houseboy, soon-to-be-adopted Wamu Rudurudu (Dawayne Ileyray Jordan), “an enterprising young man” into self-help—who’s helped himself to Kornalessa (as she puts it, when Wads was out protesting Affirmative Act ion); Ring Starr (Penny Donaville/Deborah Sherman-Price), a black academic who’s hip to the critical theory jive and blames the black man, not poverty, for domestic woes; and author Oliver McNutley (Steve Crum in a good turn), who lectures to rehabilitate the memory of Simon Legree, “that compassionate conservative,” and who shouts at the cop who brings him down, “Is this any way to treat a future Pulitzer Prize winner?” 

The canvas is broad, the dialogue can be pretty wayward and spicy, a perfect satiric al antidote to post-election letdown. And a good hook for the valiant Black Rep players to hang their hat on. 

The Black Repertory Group started out as a church drama program in 1964; it still has the feel of a community group in every sense, on stage and in the audience. And, like any community theater project that draws its talent from a range of experience, there are some rough edges and slow patches. But this is a play of moments, of tart sayings, poses and glances, as well as some riffing. 

It brings to mind at a few points the community-based origins and style of the Abbey Players, maybe the original nationalist theater company, successful long before agit-prop. And everybody has their moment, too—including Clarence R. Johnson Jr. (who alternates wi th Monica Greggs) as the Newscaster, and Alan Garth Tuttle as the Klansman-Cop-College Dean (caught tying a noose just before firing Ring Starr—who even the networks have refused and is stuck with cable as venue). 

This tongue-in-the-other-cheek satire by the author of Yellowback Radio Broke Down and Airing Dirty Laundry has been extended through Dec. 11. The performance that night will be followed by a benefit, a Soul Food and Champagne Gala, for the Group’s literacy and after-school programs.