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THEATER REVIEW : A Funny Social Study at Theatre Center

March 24, 1995|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For minorities, participation in mainstream society carries with it some inherently surreal qualities, especially when it entails sacrificing parts of one's cultural identity. Depicting the eerier manifestations of alienation is the common theme in three new one-acts from the Black Theatre Artists Workshop at Los Angeles Theatre Center: Rusty Cundieff's "The Black Horror Show," and two shorter works by Clay Goss, "Being Hit" and "Andie."

Presented as part of the multicultural Loco Motion series, this wildly divergent trio of plays with supernatural twists is strung together by narration from suave, dapper Henry Brown, who mixes the comic with the sinister in the "Tales From the Crypt" tradition. "I'm too black to be Rod Serling," he says with a wicked grin, setting the tone for the evening's wry equation of outcasts with the otherworldly.

"The Black Horror Show" proves the most elaborate entry, and the most successful as well--an ironic parable about assimilated blacks whose heritage asserts itself through werewolf transformations. In a faceless high-rise office building, well-groomed Chipper (Marlon Chopper Young) toils diligently after hours to advance up the corporate ladder when he's abruptly interrupted by the appearance of William (Shabaka Barry Henley), a successful executive from an even taller building.

After receiving a minor cut shaking hands with a long-nailed Rastafarian, William has contracted "blackanthropy"--victims acquire angry radical impulses from the 1960s that threaten their new-found economic security.

A sweating portrait of distress, Henley's William tries to maintain his composure as he tells his story, carefully crossing his legs in a polite middle-class posture. "I used to be like you," he warns Chipper, "I could drive my BMW through the projects and not feel a thing."

William's subsequent hilarious transformation--complete with Afro wig, rolling eyes, combat fatigues and a barrage of Martin Luther King quotes--sends horrified Chipper scampering for cover.

It remains for exorcist Richard Standard (Mark Christopher Lawrence) to prevent the spread of this dangerous affliction. Fortunately, it's a disease of the conscience--if you don't have one, you can't get infected. Brisk direction by Sati Jamal and funny, energetic performances all around supply the requisite lunacy and let the social implications speak for themselves.

The two shorter pieces by Goss are moodier meditations on different facets of the black experience amplified by ghostly visitations. "Being Hit," also directed by Jamal, reunites a janitor (Lawrence again) with his deceased co-worker (Rene LeVant), a former boxer who endured 19 years of pummeling in the ring and died of the resulting kidney damage. An imaginary bout between the two underscores their fierce competitive energy and will to survive, but poignantly reveals that neither understands where the real blows are coming from.

In "Andie" (directed by Henley), the spirit of a one-time project-dweller (Zatella Beatty) haunts the two home girls (Edris Cooper and Desreta Jackson, aka Brownie), who murdered their former friend out of a sense of trespass when she visited them dressed in middle-class garb. Despite some initial chiding, Andie's ghost doesn't seem to hold much of a grudge as she joins her killers to sing and dance their way through a rap number--she's certainly a better sport about the whole thing than I would have been.

* "The Black Horror Show/Being Hit/Andie," Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 2. $13. (213) 485-1681. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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