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THEATER REVIEW : Mason's 'Sexual Illegals' Undermines Hittite Empire : Los Angeles Festival: "HOME, PLACE and MEMORY" A Citywide Arts Fest.


Writer-director Keith Antar Mason came up with a provocative topic for his Los Angeles Festival Memory Project: Black male sexuality, a tough issue that the Hittite Empire has confronted before. Yet trenchant as moments of "Sexual Illegals" may be, it's a helter-skelter effort whose craft is way under Hittite par. In fact, it's mostly a belabored harangue.

Inspired by Mason's research in barbershops, "Sexual Illegals" is a non-linear exploration of the myths and realities surrounding what African-American philosopher Cornel West has called "the taboo subject." And when Mason sticks to it, his analysis is piercing. Unfortunately though, that's not often in this indulgent and redundant piece.

The format alternates between movement-based group scenes and solo recitations, mostly by Mason. The ensemble sections, which take up the majority of the stage time, typically feature the scantily clad performers moving in slow motion through a series of warrior poses. They speak fragmentary prose about the suffering of African-American men.

In tone, "Sexual Illegals" is a cross between Robert Bly-isms and a street-style gripe session about what goes down between black men and women. A litany of complaints and accusations, for example, spills out when "the woman" (Tyana Haywood) is placed in a chaise and the men take turns confronting her.

Mason, who's lately more of a poetic rather than a dramatic writer, uses rhythm and repetition to make his points. It's a style that requires precise delivery. But most of the group scenes and choral speaking are sloppy.

Mason also voices support for the men charged with beating trucker Reginald Denny. Whether or not you agree with Mason's "Free the LA4" politics isn't the point. The artistry is. But as Mason and the Hittites' politics have become more overtly nationalist, their craft has inexplicably declined. The language is more pedestrian. The group seems much less rehearsed. And easy confrontationalism now substitutes for technique.

Near the end of "Sexual Illegals," Mason gives the stage to a man who wants to "end the discriminatory prosecution of the LA4." Audience members are urged to sign flyers in support of the cause. This follows a section in which the repeated refrain is "Reginald Denny, he ain't dead," intended to turn attention to African-Americans who have died in racial incidents. The white trucker may not be dead, but by this point in the show, "Sexual Illegals" is.

* "Sexual Illegals," Cal Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Saturday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. Free. 1-800-FEST-TIX. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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