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THEATER BEAT

Teenage angst in full color

April 25, 2008|Philip Brandes, David C. Nichols, F. Kathleen Foley

A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the emerging civil rights and black pride movements in the late-1960s, "Coffee Will Make You Black" at the Celebration Theatre is an insightful drama of personal and social upheaval that takes unexpected turns.

In adapting April Sinclair's 1995 novel, director Michael A. Shepperd's serviceable staging is a straightforward transplant of the major plot points that plays to the strengths of his performers. In particular, the well-cast Diona Reasonover brings gangly charm and vulnerability to the protagonist, Jean "Stevie" Stevenson of Chicago's South Side. Stevie grows from a naive 11-year-old to an Afro-sporting high school junior. Her development mirrors the evolving racial consciousness of her community, wittily symbolized -- in its gains and frustrations -- by the astonishment engendered first by the sight of a "colored" person on television and later by the sight of a "black" person on TV.

There's a clear generational progression in shedding internalized stereotypes from Stevie's traditional grandma (Sonia Jackson) to her mom (feisty Cecelia Antoinette) to Stevie herself.

As Stevie's peers, Aasha Davis, Charlene Modeste and Daniele Watts convincingly depict the quagmires facing lower-class urban youth -- teen pregnancies, drugs and snobby repudiation by upwardly mobile fellow blacks. Joy Sudduth brings irony and fire as a teacher fighting an uphill battle against grim odds.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
'Coffee Will Make You Black': A stage review in Friday's Calendar section identified Michael Shepperd as the director of "Coffee Will Make You Black." The director is Nataki Garrett.

Paralleling the social themes is Stevie's awakening sexual identity, which weathers an early attraction to a vain, sexist jock (Deon Lucas). As a high school junior, she lands a boyfriend (Damani Singleton) who's seemingly perfect but finds herself thinking more about the sympathetic school nurse (Gretchen Koerner), who happens to be white.

Refreshingly, the play leaves Stevie wrestling with sexual confusion and ambiguity rather than cliched certainty, but we end up rooting for her no matter which way she goes.

-- Philip Brandes

"Coffee Will Make You Black," Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 25. $25. (323) 957-1884 or www.tix.com. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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'Testosterone' strikes right tone

Too many message-driven shows have the opposite effect of their intended reach, but not "Testosterone: How Prostate Cancer Made a Man of Me" at the Powerhouse Theatre. Hal Ackerman's candid saga of survival has its awkward bits, but its light-handed means catch you unawares.

A longtime co-chairman of UCLA's screenwriting program, Ackerman first published this personal account in the magazine Ink & Ashes, then AARP's "My Generation." Launching his direct address before the house lights dim, Ackerman moves from life before his diagnosis -- divorce, joint custody -- to the ordeal of facing the possible loss of his masculinity, not to mention his life.

If it sounds like pages from a journal, that's how it sometimes feels, but Ackerman is so likable and unpretentious that it's hard to kvetch too much. Tossing zingers and flashes of insight around set designer John Iacovelli's black-scrim drop, Ackerman locates the specifics that help us identify, and his honesty about himself and the people who figure into his tale is most admirable.

So are director Michael Arabian and actors Randy Oglesby and Lisa Robins, who provide adroit support. Oglesby is especially deft as an array of doctors and technicians, from kindly to automaton to Igor from "Frankenstein." Robins wields her soft-focus Christine Baranski qualities to fine effect, knowingly snarky as Ackerman's teen daughter, deadpan direct as the career-woman girlfriend he tries to protect.

Frank McKown's lighting is supple, and Bob Blackburn's sound keeps us abreast of the shifts in locale and mood. However, "Testosterone" doesn't turn on theatrics but on what Ackerman has gained through this experience. More than the obvious male demographic could benefit from his funny, touching testimonial.

-- David C. Nichols

"Testosterone: How Prostate Cancer Made a Man of Me," Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 10. $20. (310) 396-3680. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Caught up in 'Trapezoid's' A.I.

In his world premiere play, presented by Lodestone Theatre Ensemble at the GTC Burbank, Nic Cha Kim shows a playful side that is highly engaging. So do director Chil Kong and the actors, who seem to be having a bang-up time with Kim's sci-fi romp about a slam poet's ill-fated relationship with an A.I. computer. But the play's basic premise -- power-crazed computer runs amok and starts killing its human creators -- is a tired retread that wore out its welcome some decades back.

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