Watching a play like The American Jesus Christ brings home how scarcely the black experience is depicted on stage. African Americans are visible on television from the silly (UPN sitcoms) to the serious (HBO docudramas), and some of Hollywood's biggest drawing cards (Will Smith, Denzel Washington) are black. But musicals and August Wilson aside, blacks in the theater are often relegated to "colorless"-or, at best, supporting-roles. So what a gift, to African American actors and to audiences of all colors, is Don Wilson Glenn's The American Jesus Christ. He has written five excellent roles forblack women, that neglected demographic within a neglected demographic.
The American Jesus Christ is reminiscent of A Raisin in the Sun, the landmark black drama of 1959, in several respects. It focuses on a small group of characters in one interior setting, and it interweaves the characters' personal struggles and attitudes with political and social issues facing their entire race. Glenn's writing is poignant but never maudlin; his script is straightforward but nonetheless engaging. Without negatively affecting the play's pace, Glenn takes his time letting his characters reveal themselves and have their consciousnesses raised.
The play is set in June 1968 in a small town in the South where the mutilated body of a young black man has been found in a ditch. At first, almost innocently, the kitchen employees discuss the incident as if it were any other death, reflecting on the pros and cons of an undertaker's job. They warn their co-worker who lives near the ditch to be careful, as if geography were the murderer's motive. Eventually, though, the political becomes personal (or is it the other way around?) and the women recognize the ramifications of such a crime for their own lives.
The five actors in The American Jesus Christ were outstanding, both individually and as an ensemble. Benja K. was affecting and realistic whether she was unleashing wisecracks, fury or frustration. JoJo Sydenham also was convincing on different levels, playing the seemingly sycophantic but ultimately sympathetic Buella. Sharon Hope's effectiveness lay in the naturalness and physical aspects of her performance. Patricia R. Floyd took the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, vacillating about whether to continue her pregnancy. Damaris Webb had perhaps the most stirring moment in the play: sweetness exploding into defiance when her character ceases tolerating the white waitresses' illegible handwriting.
In addition to playing their roles, the actors had to cook, chop and clean incessantly. The kitchen set was designed in superb detail by Rona Taylor and bountifully furnished by properties staff Judy Alvarez and Fernando Ortiz. There was also substantial work from sound effects creator Nik Chamberlin. The American Jesus Christ was as proficient technically as it was emotionally and sociologically.
(Costumes, Karen Rowland; lighting, Kevin Lange; sound operator, Caroline Jauch.)
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Copyright 1998 Adrienne Onofri