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THEATER BEAT : Twists and turns in a family tree

November 13, 2009|Charlotte Stoudt; F. Katherine Foley; David C. Nichols

President Obama drank Bud Light, but in Julie Hebert's "Tree," now at [Inside] the Ford, a mixed-race family's beer summit comes with a lot more kick.

White gender studies professor Didi (Jacqueline Wright) shows up at the Chicago home of African American chef Leo (Chuma Gault) claiming to be his half-sister from Louisiana. Turns out Leo's mother, Jessalyn (Sloan Robinson), had a love affair with Didi's father, known only to his daughter as a belligerent racist.

The bitter Didi wants to find her father's love letters, hoping to recover some part of him worth mourning. Leo, caring for a dying Jessalyn, doesn't want to dredge up the past. The siblings battle it out, with Leo's young daughter, J.J. (Tessa Thompson), in the crossfire.

Hebert's characters -- profane and stubborn -- have an ornery charm. Director Jessica Kubzansky honors "Tree's" poetry without letting it sink the drama and pushes her cast away from sentimentality. Every performance is strong, but Gault's Leo provides essential gravity. Guarded and sardonic, he deflects his sister's emotional salvos with steady wit. (Didi: "My father always wanted a son like you." Leo, dryly: "He had a son like me.")

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, November 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Trojan Women": A review in Friday's Calendar section of the play "The Trojan Women" at City Garage misspelled the first name of actress Alisha Nichols as Alicia.

This Ensemble Studio Theatre-Los Angeles world premiere is beautifully produced. Brian Sidney Bembridge's set and moody lighting are almost characters in themselves. Leo's warm, wood-beamed home sits slightly at an angle, like a house lifted by a hurricane that hasn't settled into its new foundation. Upstage, like images from a dream, Spanish moss clings to cypress branches, evoking the ambiguous beauty of the South. Every design element draws you in, from Bruno Louchouarn's original music to Leah Piehl's striking costumes.

In "Tree," there is no true love without pain. Hebert suggests that real families are the people who know you well enough to push you into becoming someone new. Now there's an idea to bring to the Thanksgiving table.

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Charlotte Stoudt --

"Tree," [Inside] the Ford, 2580 E. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. No performance on Thanksgiving. Ends Dec. 13. $12-$20. Contact: (323) 461-3673 or www.FordTheatres .org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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Home is where the heartache is

Woody Allen once said, "Paranoia is knowing all the facts."

For single mother Sylvie Black (Sheila Tousey), the lesson in harsh reality began four years ago. Viciously attacked on her way home from work, Sylvie has not left her apartment since and spends her time watching dire news reports that fuel her terror.

Her son and sole companion, Carbon (Michael Drummond), now 13, has become the family provider, eking out their meager means and trolling the trash to supplement any shortcomings. It's a grinding responsibility, and hearing a little girl murdered outside his squalid apartment has put Carbon on a dangerous edge.

Terry Gomez's "Carbon Black," which launches the 10th season of the Native Voices series at the Autry National Center, is an imperfect but ravaging parable about the terrible weight that many modern-day children are forced to shoulder before their time.

If that sounds bleak, it is. Yet in a deft staging, director Randy Reinholz ferrets out the humor in Gomez's drama, particularly the playful interaction between Sylvie and Carbon -- a loving but onerous bond that Carbon must break to survive.

There are problems, such as at play's end, when a man is seen lurking in a thicket with the missing Carbon -- giving rise to dark speculations one suspects the playwright never intended. Yet the solid cast, including Tonantzin Carmelo as the guidance counselor who befriends Carbon, and Stephan Wolfert as a caustic but caring vice principal, compensates for the occasional failing. As for Tousey and Drummond, they are standouts, as pitiable as they are ultimately heroic.

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F. Katherine Foley --

"Carbon Black," Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 22. $20. (866) 468-3399. Running time: 2 hours.

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Greek tragedy hits modern times

A high level of invention suffuses "The Trojan Women" at City Garage. Deconstructing Euripides' classic tragedy into a multifarious current-day collage, adaptor-designer Charles Duncombe and director Frederique Michel pull few punches in the wake of burning Illium.

The geopolitical realities in Duncombe's freewheeling text range from harrowing statistics of recent genocides to sardonic swipes at our blog-infested society. Darfur, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, overpopulation, climate change and more punctuate the same gender positions that have driven this saga since its Peloponnesian War premiere.

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