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THEATER REVIEW 'VOICES' : Slaves' Stories : Civil War-era narratives are joined with a contemporary interracial romance in a Moorpark College production.

February 27, 1992|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Faced with the self-imposed challenge of adapting for the stage a series of reminiscences by Civil War-era slaves, Moorpark College instructor Les Wieder has written "Voices." In the author's workshop production concluding this weekend at the college, the play shows imagination and merit.

The easy way to translate the slaves' narratives to the stage would be to have a number of actors simply reading the words, collected by Fisk University historians in the '30s. More ambitiously, Wieder has attempted to give the oral history contemporary relevance, juxtaposing that chorus of actors with a modern romance.

On the plus side, the slaves' stories show tremendous strength, courage, determination and humor. At least a couple of generations of Americans--black and white--probably have no idea of the depths of the horror of the slaves' experiences.

Nine actors, each taking several parts, speak these words--composites by Wieder from the actual narratives--with eloquence and power. It's instructive, somewhat harrowing even more than a century after the fact, and ultimately entertaining.

The contemporary story is more problematical, almost trivializing the slaves' experiences despite Wieder's best efforts.

Lena Walker, who is black, is engaged to David Lang, who is white. Lang is pressing for marriage; Walker, who has been listening to the former slaves' reminiscences, is becoming increasingly reluctant. Already aware of the social pressures consequent to such intermarriage, Walker is becoming ever more aware of her race's history and, she tells her fiance, "marrying you will put me in the position of moving away from my world."

Lena and David are both young, attractive, educated and at least middle-class. Though any prejudice they might face shouldn't be underestimated, it doubtless would be even stronger were either party in a different social or educational stratum--if, for instance, Lena traded places with her friend Val Turner. Turner is far less refined, a jive-talker who ends nearly every statement to Lena with the word "girl."

This--combined with the fact that the actress playing Val, Shannon Renee Mabel, has a darker complexion than Sharon Thompson, who plays Lena--makes one wonder what the author/director is trying to say. When you're talking about prejudice, such factors can be important.

David, played by John Mulhall, is far less interesting than even Val, a bland figure whose frustration looks suspiciously like whining selfishness. He says he loves Lena, but there's no evidence here other than his word, and there is virtually no chemistry between the characters--perhaps Wieder could show us David and Lena in a warmer moment, before she started hearing the "voices" of the slaves.

The strongest performers at Friday night's show were the "voices" and Shannon Renee Mabel. And Thompson and Mulhall, in comparison, were lifeless.

The music, mostly percussion and vocal sound effects, is credited to prominent composer-producer Ndugu Chancler. Brenda Maben's costumes and Mickey Howell's set show imagination.

Overall, "Voices" is a valuable piece of work, its strong points certainly outnumbering its weaknesses. And one of the advantages of such a workshop production is that those weaknesses can be hammered out.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Voices" continues tonight through Saturday at the Forum Theater on the Moorpark College Campus, 7075 Campus Road in Moorpark. All performances are at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7 general admission; $5 for students, seniors, faculty and staff. For reservations or further information, call 378-1468.

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