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Compelling Performances Steer 'Driving While Black'

March 02, 2001|PHILIP BRANDES

An unprovoked police stop sparks legal and domestic turbulence that unravels a lifetime pursuit of an illusory American Dream in Frank S. Jenkins' "Driving While Black in Beverly Hills," a guest production at the Matrix Theatre. Set in 1970, Jenkins' issue-oriented drama begins with perhaps the most sinister aspect of the selective targeting now formally known as racial profiling: its chilling evenhandedness.

No matter how far Anthony Nash, Jenkins' assimilated, well-to-do black protagonist, has ascended the ladder of social respectability, his accomplishments mean nothing to the police who target him and his driving companions because of the color of their skin. Nash's outrage at this twisted mutation of democracy provokes a potentially career-ending arrest, forcing a probing examination of the moral compromises he and his family have made to attain their Beverly Hills lifestyle.

As Nash, Felton Perry evokes a powerhouse portrait of shattered complacency and convincingly displays the courageous rekindling of a long-slumbering social conscience. Also compelling is Lillian Lehman's performance as Nash's wife, Celia, desperately trying to keep up appearances and preserve her family's status quo. Caught in the ethical no man's land are their high school-age children, Paul (Robert Blake Marshall) and Angela (Alex Martin-Dean), who take definitive steps toward adulthood in the course of the evening.

Ultimately, a bigger catalyst for change than the arrest itself is the unwavering morality of Paul's activist school buddy Zap (Gilbert Glenn Brown), who shames Anthony into doing the right thing. At the other extreme is the villain of the piece, the Nashes' slimy lawyer (Duane Shepard Sr.), an over-the-top mix of Iago-esque plotting and Uncle Tom-ism. Jeremy Miles and Charley Swain do double duty as a pair of racist cops and a gay couple from Celia's office.

Under Lynn Hamilton's focused staging, the fine cast makes the play's earnest, often eloquent articulation of its issues affecting and persuasive. However, the impassioned rhetoric also undermines the dramatic reality. These characters spend almost as much time making speeches as they do talking to one another, and they sometimes violate their natures if necessary to make a rhetorical point--for example, Celia upbraids her husband for turning his back on Malcolm X and other black leaders, even though her own values don't exactly put her on a first-name basis with them.

*

* "Driving While Black in Beverly Hills," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends March 25. $18. (323) 655-TKTS. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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