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Bluesmen's Battle Plays Out in Shallow 'Ragged Time'

October 04, 2002|F. Kathleen Foley,Daryl H. Miller,David C. Nichols

Playwright Oliver Mayer straddles the gap between expressionism and sentimentality in "Ragged Time," his world-premiere play at the Black Dahlia Theatre.

The stretch results in a bruising tumble for Mayer, perhaps best known for "Blade to the Heat," a drama loosely based on a famous and deadly boxing match. Although "Blade" took a critical drubbing in certain quarters for its hyperbole and shaky structure, it was lauded as a directorial tour de force for George C. Wolfe, who helmed the New York production, and for the late Ron Link, whose 1995 staging at the Mark Taper Forum was widely acclaimed.

If Matt Shakman, who has shown his directorial mettle in past Black Dahlia productions, including the long-running "Orson's Shadow," hopes to pull off a similar feat in "Ragged Time," he largely succeeds. Shakman's exuberant staging plumbs the shallows of Mayer's ragged "Time" to consistently entertaining effect. However, that adage about the silk purse comes inexorably to mind.

The action is set in 1898, in "A Deep South of the Mind" (why Mayer doesn't cop to the fact that his setting is actually Charleston, S.C., remains anyone's guess). The story concerns the battle between Blind Ross and Blind Gary (Jeris Lee Poindexter and L. Kenneth Richardson, respectively), itinerant black blues musicians who are vying for the services of a Mexican orphan (Tina Sanchez) to act as their "lead boy," a sort of seeing-eye human. The fact that Ignacio is a talented musician who could pass along their musical legacy makes their rivalry all the more bitter. Meanwhile, Abe (Tony Abatemarco), a scrappy Jewish paperboy just passing through on his way to war in Cuba, falls in love with Freda (Chane't Johnson), a whore of color trying to pass for white. A requisite redneck (George Gerdes) adds trumped-up menace, while the Yellow Kid (Steven Klein) and the Buster Brownish Sanctimonious Kid (Jennifer Morrison), comic-book characters come to life, also prance through the action to arcane effect.

Led by the authoritative Abatemarco, a top-notch cast shores up the thematically shaky proceedings, but their praiseworthy efforts cannot conceal the crumbling surface beneath.

F. Kathleen Foley

"Ragged Time," Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 3. $18. (323) 856-4200. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.


'Death Row' Takes

Hard-to-Follow Path

Like many others during the Depression, they were just trying to hitch a free train ride. They paid dearly for it.

After an on-board fight between a handful of black and white youths, nine of the blacks, ages 13 to 19, were rounded up for arrest. A pair of white women then emerged to claim that the black youths had raped them. Guilt was swiftly declared and the death penalty imposed. So began the legal odyssey that would forever lump the youths together as the Scottsboro Boys.

The Scottsboro case remains instructive on many levels. But confusion threatens to overwhelm the lessons in "Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys," written by Mark Stein, with songs by Harley White Jr., at the Fountain Theatre.

The show is presented vaudeville-style as it looks back at events that began on March 25, 1931, near Scottsboro, Ala., and stretched over the next 17 years. The Scottsboro Boys materialize on a scuffed but gaily decorated stage (designed by Thomas A. Brown), looking battered and wary. The longest-jailed--the cocky, resilient Haywood Patterson (Edwin Morrow)--quickly emerges as the lead storyteller. His compatriots are played by a mix of male and female actors who assume multiple roles.

To portray white accusers and defenders, the performers don commedia dell'arte-style masks. One such figure is the youths' chief accuser, Victoria Price (Bernadette L. Speakes), who sings a sexy blues number and slinks around the stage even as she tries to present herself as a paragon of Southern virtue. Coming to the defendants' aid, Joe Brodsky (Gilbert Glenn Brown) of the American Communist Party does a magic act to demonstrate what he can do for them.

These moments lend a wry bit fun to what is otherwise a bleak tale of racism and opportunism.

Under Ben Bradley's direction, the proceedings are always interesting to look at, and the characterizations--by a cast that also includes Erinn Anova, Sheilagh M. Brooks, Yaphet Enge, Andre Jackson, Don Richardson, Timothy Lopez Rogers and piano player Tim Davis--are always sharp.

But with so many characters trying to describe what happened, sometimes out of sequence, the story is difficult to follow.

Daryl H. Miller

"Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 10. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.


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