Arts Listings

The Theater: African-American Shakespeare Co.’s ‘Lysistrata’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday March 27, 2007

“Stop in the Name of Love, or, Until the War Is Over, Nobody Gets Over.” The subheads of the African-American Shakespeare Co.’s production of Lysistrata say it all—as director Rhodessa Jones amplifies, “Lysistrata is a cry for peace by women driven to change the world using the ultimate weapon!” 

Aristophanes’ ancient bawdy comedy has long been the rallying cry of civilian peace movements in the West, especially since the time of the Popular Front in the 1930s. Its tale of women conspiring to withhold their charms from their warrior husbands until peace (and love) are sued for is sampled by Jones and her crew at San Francisco’s Buriel Clay Theater in the African-American Art and Cultural Complex in a string of vignettes from the old masterpiece with tableaux in shadow-play, riding on a wave of music. 

“I did it for myself,” confesses Jones during her pre-show remarks. “If you like it, tell your friends; if you don’t—mind your own business!” 

This Lysistrata-ish attitude is aided and abetted by an array of performers, including a jazz singer (Cheryl Bennett Scales in the title role), an actor-playwright (Maikiko James as the Goddess of Peace), a stand-up comedian (Shareef Allman as the hapless camoflage-clad Cinesias), a musical theater performer (Viessa Keith-Queen as Lampito), a couple of shadow puppeteers (Sheila Devitt and Nicole Podell) and other performers from around the Bay and the country (Tamika Kai Chenier as Myrrhine, Leslie Ivy as the Koryphaios, Karen Marek as the Old Woman and Desiree Rogers as the Magistrate). 

The combination of these various backgrounds and levels of stage experience, coupled with the “bitty” nature of the show, one routine after another, give it the spirited quality of a kind of vaudevillized pageant, rather than a full staging of a venerable classic. The cast, like the director, is having fun—but for a purpose. Action and language switch back and forth from references to the classical Greek, specifically Athenian, state of things, and arise out of a swirl of present-day popular culture, the miasma of Iraq, well-represented by shadow images and live actors in silhouette. 

The music and singing is both recorded and live, coming from a variety of sources, from James Brown to Jimi Hendrix’s stratospheric bending of the national anthem, from Middle Eastern song to the very apt recessional, Aretha’s “Do-Right Woman.” 

The music leads to some funny business, as the warlike men in shadow-play (the puppetry mentored by I Made Moja, a collaborator with Larry Reed’s brilliant ShadowLight Productions) find their awkward military strutting reduced to a kind of funky-chicken walk in their unsatisfied desperation before they throw in the towel. 

There are a few moments when the text of ancient comedy wryly becomes sit-com-ish, as when Shareef Allman as Cinesias and Tamika Chenier as Myrrhine get into it. Cinesias demands—then pleads for—his connubial rights, “right here on the ground” (in front of the Parthenon?) as his sly wife eggs him on, finds excuses, and dances away to other things, as her fraught spouse cries out her name in anguish, sounding like “Maureen! Maureen!”  

So it all could be right next door, which is one purpose of the show. The other is demonstrated, literally, by the speeches and chants against the present Iraq debacle, some authored by the cast. This Lysistrata succeeds because of its own exuberance, but the play has always been a rallying cry, and that’s how this version works best.