Samm-Art Williams writes tone poems for the stage.
He did so in "Home," his 1980 Tony-nominated ode to a Southern black man's odyssey and the two women in his life. He's done it again in "Eyes of the American," now in its West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, but with a difference.
"Eyes" is both simple and intricate, something that could as easily be said of "Home." What prevails in both pieces is a true sense of craftsmanship, occasionally undermined by Williams' tendency to over-poeticize. But aside from the fact that only three actors again play all parts, there is no resemblance between the two plays.
"Eyes of the American" is a strong political fiction, something invented that has all the earmarks of a familiar reality. Behind a canvas of dictatorship and revolution lies a quasi-classic human situation: childhood friends who have drifted apart as men and who square off as leaders, goaded by the poisonous intrusion of a stranger.
Williams plops us on some undetermined West Indian island where a despot rules, revolt is brewing and a CIA agent becomes a meddlesome Iago. In the opening image, we're confronted by a local cabdriver (Carl W. Lumbly) who insists a little too fervently that he doesn't want to be king. That should tip us off at once that we're locked into a struggle for power.
In fact, it doesn't (tip us off, that is), largely because the flash-forward/flash-back structure Williams has provided for this play is confusing before it becomes suspenseful. And the subsequent doubling up of actors in already tricky roles tends to blur the edges of identity even more. It isn't that we don't get it, but that (at least in this staging by Edmund J. Cambridge) it takes a while to get the hang of who is playing whom, and who is being what to whom when. Convolution as acute as this can become a dangerous thing.
Still, Williams is a writer of substance who does not sacrifice a correct or instinctual thought to a good line (even when those lines wax a tad too poetic). At the heart of this play is an absorbing, often tough dialectic, full of thoughtful counterpoint, that would gain in graininess what it would lose in imagery if Williams were willing to surrender some of the local color. And with as strong a cast as he has here--Lumbly, Glynn Turman and Janet MacLachlan--he is, in the main, very well served. And yet one cannot help having some reservations.
The reason? The structure ultimately gets in the way; the poetry makes these capable actors too often sound like actors instead of the characters they portray, and the doubling up remains an arguable device when a cast is as small as this one and the roles are so equal.
Russell Pyle did the simple shanty setting, backed by a sprawling and symbolic set of uneven risers hugging the back wall. (Rocky steps up to power?) His special lighting for the numerous flashbacks, however, is not special enough to make it always clear that we're in another time frame.
Nicole Morin has provided flavorful costuming that suggests the milieu without defining it too much, while Stephen Shaffer's sound design, peppered with gunshots and other explosions, creates just the right degree of angst. With so much going on at all times, requiring all of our attention, we need all the help we can get.