at Malcolm X College Theatre
There's no place like home. --Dorothy Gale, in The Wizard of Oz.
Home has long been a powerful symbol in this land of immigrants, an idea that cuts across all racial, ethnic, and class divisions. Home is a fixed notion for a constantly mobile people. Americans are forever leaving home, returning home, and waxing poetic about it. Home can symbolize stability, comfort, safety, even confinement and conformity.
Dream Variation, by Marian Warrington, offers a muddled variation on the theme of the search for home. Dr. Sengali Rama Ra is a black American scientist in the throes of a mid-life crisis. The crux of Rama Ra's problem is that he can no longer produce work of the quantity and quality of his younger days. Rama Ra's new position at an east-coast university (a "home" where he doesn't feel wanted) is jeopardized by his failure to publish anything during the past few years.
Rama Ra says that his "gods" have stopped talking to him; that is, he no longer hears the internal "voices" that once directed his highly regarded scientific pursuits. In his arrogance, he assumes that any lessening of his ability must have a cause outside himself, something that can be identified, isolated, and resolved. Rama Ra decides to follow the path back home, to return to the fruitful days of his youth.
And what a tortuous, unrelenting path it is. From the play's opening, when Rama Ra enters carrying a box that contains high school and college memorabilia (an opening reminiscent of Willy Loman sinking beneath the weight of his luggage in Death of a Salesman), to its end, when he totters suicidally above the chasm of his empty life, Dream Variation pounds through one angst-filled moment after another. But the characters in Dream Variation (unlike those of Death of a Salesman) are caricatures--cliched, poorly drawn figures with personalities and motivations that are never clarified.
Rama Ra is the main problem. Supposedly, he is a smart, accomplished man, yet his character is not written that way. Christened Paul Ray, Rama Ra changed his name during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement. When he found that a new name wasn't enough, Rama Ra tried to move around the world and change cultures, tried to pass himself off as "a citizen of the world," so that people would view him only as a scientist, and not as a "black" or an "American" scientist.
His ideals are noble but the world has not changed to accommodate them, and if you would expect some modification of attitude or outlook on Rama Ra's part you'd be wrong. Smart people--even when they are more stubborn than a mule--learn from their experiences, in real life and in plays, but not he.
And if Rama Ra has learned nothing, neither, apparently, has his white wife, Sheila Rama Ra. After 20 years of marriage, she still doesn't know her husband or herself. Their dialogue makes them seem to be talking to each other for the first time, and to have only now, for the benefit of the audience, discovered that they have a problem communicating. "What happened to Ram and Sheila against the world?" she asks. "I'm still here," he replies. "No you're not," she says. Air out your dirty laundry, if you must, but please make it interesting if not believable.
A few scintillating conversations later, the play's action shifts to South Carolina, Rama Ra's original home, and the current home of his illegitimate teenage daughter, Syreeta. Her mother (and Rama Ra's lover) Estelle has recently died, and the remaining family--Uncle William and his daughter Corine--have no idea how to raise the energetic, free-spirited girl. The good Dr. Rama Ra is contacted, and to everyone's surprise he shows up inquiring after his daughter. The reunion fails miserably, however, because, as we all know, you can never go home again.
Or something like that. While playwright Marian Warrington has a better feel for the South Carolina characters, her points remain unclear. The play improves some over its dull beginning, but not enough to make us care about what's going on.
What seem to be Warrington's ideas about the agony brought on by aging could be powerful. Likewise, what seem to be her ideas about the search for home and family identity. Neither Rama Ra nor Syreeta knows where he or she belongs. They might symbolize the blacks of America, whose roots in this country may be far deeper than most white Americans' but who remain excluded from the larger American family. Warrington's ideas, however, are swamped by the flood of personal problems thrashed out by the characters of Dream Variation.
The Kuumba Theatre production compounds a bad script with aimless direction and bad acting. Terry Cullers's direction offers no clues to the play's meanings, nor does it show much understanding of people's natural movements and actions. Typical of Cullers's direction are the encounters between Rama Ra (Foster Williams Jr.) and Lou Gross, a college administrator (Thomas Antonio). These two lurch about the stage as if they are only now learning how to walk, at such an apparent loss for motivation that I wondered if Cullers has them moving merely to cover the inanities of the script.
The second act's somewhat greater bounce is due largely to the skills of Percy Littleton as Uncle William and Courtney Nicholson as Syreeta. Littleton is the only actor to demonstrate a consistent understanding of his character. When his Uncle William says that moments are "about all any of us gets," it sounds like a small truth and not a platitude.
Nicholson succeeds by sheer force of energy. Her Syreeta is spry and sometimes out of control, but these excesses are a welcome diversion.
Foster Williams exhibits tendencies that would guarantee selection to the Obvious Acting Hall of Fame. The script tells us that Rama Ra is a troubled man; we do not need to see Williams continually furrow his brow or rub the bridge of his nose as his eyelids narrow.
The balance of the cast struggles valiantly but adds little to the play. Scattered moments are all we get in this evening's search for home.