ETA Creative Arts Foundation
When I was about 11 years old I decided to write a short story. After filling seven or eight pages, I read what I'd written and immediately recognized that the main character was me--or rather, the person I wanted to be. The other characters were idealized versions of friends and teachers, all of them treating me the way I wanted to be treated. The whole story, in fact, was just a self-indulgent fantasy, and I was so mortified by it that I ripped it to shreds.
I experienced that same feeling of embarrassment while watching Stoops, by Crystal V. Rhodes, at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation. This story about growing up in a black neighborhood during the 1960s and early 1970s focuses on three girlfriends--Kelly, Deara, and Corky--who are relentlessly cute as children, smart as adolescents, and strong as young adults. Sure, they go through some hard times--Kelly's loving, protective brother is murdered, for example, and Corky has two babies by a young man who obviously doesn't care about her. But no matter what happens to them, these three friends react nobly.
Stoops is a memory play: Rhodes is trying to evoke the character types and attitudes she remembers from the neighborhood in Indianapolis where she grew up. Deara's grandmother, for example, is a church lady with an intensely religious view of life. Kelly's mother disciplines her with vicious spankings. And "Miz Lacey," the neighborhood prostitute, is a nice "businesswoman" who gives big tips to the children when they run to the store for her.
But memory plays are tricky. The people who write them obviously find their own recollections fascinating. To be interesting to others, however, memories must be recounted with enormous wit and charm.
Avalon, for example, Barry Levinson's recent film about growing up in Baltimore, consists of nothing but memories. The film has no plot and very little character development; it consists of self-contained vignettes that pass by one by one, like cars on a freight train. But each vignette is inherently absorbing, and the train is actually going somewhere. Avalon becomes an homage to memory itself --the private memories that define each one of us as well as the collective memories that hold groups together.
Stoops has no such charm or direction. Almost all of the flat, predictable vignettes revolve around the men these three women are interested in; one in particular keeps reappearing. When Deara is a fifth grader, she has a crush on Rabbit Randolph, who lives around the corner. Five years later, when Rabbit has perfected an elaborate strut, Corky is the one interested in him. "Prove yourself tonight, and I'll ask you to be with me tomorrow," he tells her when she asks if she's his girlfriend. "Baby, I got needs. I'm a man! All I'm asking for is what a man's got to have."
Only Kelly seems self-sufficient. By the time she graduates from high school she has become politically active and is destined for college. Eventually she's the editor of a prominent black magazine. But the last two scenes are devoted to her romantic involvement with Rabbit, who has become a suave executive. "I took my hustle off the street and right into the executive suite," he says.
Trying to capture an era, Rhodes succeeds only in tracing the romantic relationships of three young women. The vignettes she creates are so narrow that they can have little interest for others.
Fortunately, the three actresses here are skillful enough to create three distinct personalities. Juliette Ferguson is particularly effective as Corky, a sassy, aggressive girl always ready to fight with anyone who disagrees with her. Sanetta Y. Gipson plays Deara as just that--a sweet, undemanding dear who seems satisfied with what life hands her. Holly Hancock, though awkward when portraying Kelly as a young girl, gives a poised, self-assured performance as the mature woman.
Brian P. Weddington does a fine job of capturing the essence of Rabbit Randolph as a sullen 12-year-old, a flamboyant teenager, and a sophisticated young man. Though the playwright has made Rabbit a crude cartoon, Weddington manages to find some truth and charm in the character.
I've often wondered why that short story I wrote so long ago was so embarrassing for me. Stoops has helped me understand. Like Stoops, my story was inherently false. Pretending to reflect the world around me, it was actually a self-absorbed fantasy about an ideal world in which I could be perfect.
Rhodes has created a similar world for herself in Stoops. Even if the play isn't literally autobiographical, it flatters her by presenting romanticized views of the life she knew growing up. Rather than offering the audience a perceptive picture of the real world, Stoops presents a fantasy that reveals only how the playwright wants to see herself.
And who cares about that?