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THEATER REVIEW : 'Jonin' ' a Slice of African-American Frat-House Life

April 15, 1993|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jonin' is slang for the art of the verbal put-down--like when guys woof at the mention of some other dude's girlfriend. "Jonin,' " the play, is a slice of African-American frat-house life that shows what happens when a bunch of Howard University Omega brothers take the jousting too far.

Written by Gerard Brown, whose first screenplay became the 1992 Earnest Dickerson film "Juice," "Jonin' " is a traditional coming-of-age drama, full of male bonding, rowdy dorm bonhomie, brutal one-upmanship--and more homophobia and misogyny than it needs to make its point.

In fact, if it weren't for a staunch ensemble cast, ably directed by Tommy Ford of Fox TV's "Martin," this play would be mostly forgettable. But the energy and chemistry between these guys--and their utterly natural onstage rapport--makes this material seem much more subtly nuanced than it is on the page.

*

The boyz in the frat are familiar types. There's good guy Steve (elegant Allan Dean Moore), a New Hampshire import who keeps trying to toss the slackers out of his room so he can cram for a test. He's the Sensitive Male in the pack, the one who actually sees a woman as something more than two legs. Eddie (Mushond Lee) is the nephew of the president of the university, a hangdog ne'er-do-well on the six-year degree plan. Cutups Q. T. (comic Eugene Williams) and Greg (a magnetic Michael Davis) horse around with a basketball in the hallway and don't know when to let up on the put-downs. And the archetypes go on.

What plot there is revolves around classic guy activities like trying to score with women and planning a party in order to (you guessed it) score with women. Otherwise, the fellas spend most of their time dissin' a gay student and their residence adviser, who turns out to be the gay man's lover, and thereby the object of their derision, too.

Predictably, the young guys' jonin' eventually goes too far, causing a tragedy that ought to be sobering. Except, some of these lunks don't show a lot more remorse than the Spur Posse.

The problem with this script is that women, gay men--and anybody else who's even marginally "other," such as African student Willie (convincingly played by Christopher M. Brown)--are sketchily drawn, and ultimately treated more like props than characters.

Playwright Brown is hip to what happens when the Omegas don't let up on their own. Still, he sees the relentless persecution of gays and the degradation of women as just normal, excusable guy behavior. You'd think he'd see that all kinds of rock-headed pranks are equally lethal.

Director Ford makes the frat-house comings and goings utterly believable, with his astute handling of the overlapping and improv-laced verbal interplay. He orchestrates the physical encounters with just the right combination of menace and boyish play.

Sometimes the guys all rush into the conversational fray at once, muddying the exchanges. But most of the beats are subtly focused and unforced. Flashes of choreography (by LeRoi Holmes Jr.) also add texture, although the piece could use even more of this steppin'.

Its insensitivities notwithstanding, "Jonin' " could serve as a one-stop casting call for a producer on the prowl for young African-American male talent.

* "Jonin,' " Richard Pryor Theatre, 1445 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood. Friday s-- Saturday s , 8 p.m.; Sunday s , 3 and 7:30 p.m. Indefinitely. $18.50. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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