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The Newlywed Game

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PUDDIN 'N PETE

Goodman Studio Theatre

MULATTO

Stage Acting Studio

at Shattered Globe Theatre

Puddin is a well-spoken executive secretary with plans for a better future and a deep mistrust of men. Pete is a high school janitor with little education or guile but plenty of down-home country wisdom. Both these middle-aged people have had failed marriages; aside from that, the only thing they have in common is their need for each other. So they get married.

In the first scene of Cheryl L. West's Puddin 'n Pete, premiering at the Goodman Studio Theatre, the pair look like a slightly older, more apprehensive version of the plastic couple one sees on the tops of wedding cakes. A lighted signboard informs us that this is "In the Beginning," as we watch wedding guests muse about the couple's chances. West's play revolves around modern-day relationships between African American men and women, and marriage in particular--an institution supposedly based on honesty and trust that seldom works out that way. A smug guest at their wedding accordingly informs the audience that the story of Puddin and Pete is "a true story based on a lie."

Ultimately West's outlook is more optimistic than she would have us believe at first, however, and her optimism is so infectious, her characters so multilayered and human, and this production, directed by Gilbert Wadadazaf McCauley, so sensitive that it's easy to overlook some of the more predictable turns in the plot.

These include the outcome of Pete's friendship with Ariel (Rebecca Tennison), a troubled student at the school where he's a janitor. His relationship with her shows all the signs of producing a charge of child molestation, and when it does, that charge relates rather patly to a dark secret from Puddin's past. Meanwhile the signboard informs us that this is "The Test." Luckily the well-traveled territory of child abuse, on which West has no new insights, is merely the pretext for ruminations on a question pertinent to any marriage. "Who Is This Person?" reads the signboard earlier in the play, after the couple has a nasty spat over nothing more important than a botched dinner party. Newly married, they set about finding out.

"Every day you have to reevaluate--you have to marry him all over again," observes Puddin, wondering if the warmth and security Pete gives her are worth the absence of sparkling conversation. Pete, meanwhile, must struggle to maintain his dignity under Puddin's well-intentioned efforts to improve him. He clashes with her friends and her decor; when she's not distrustful, she's often dismissive. The backdrop for their conflicts, but separate from them, is racial tension: a white teacher looks askance at Pete while alone in a corridor with him; black students snub new, white student Ariel; Puddin's friends make concerted efforts to bridge any racial gaps with her (Cindy Orthal's nasal delivery of "I hear you talking, girlfriend" is delicious) while openly condescending to Pete. This is racism with a light touch--maddening, but not obvious enough to do anything about, a fact of these people's lives.

The play is driven by character rather than plot, and it needs strong performers to keep it from crumbling under the weight of introspection. Director McCauley's ensemble doesn't disappoint. John Gegenhuber, JoNell Kennedy, Orthal, and Tim Rhoze are superbly versatile. Teenager Tennison delivers an admirably restrained and nuanced performance as Ariel. Cheryl Lynn Bruce's Puddin is a marvel of hardheaded hurt, and Ernest Perry Jr.'s Pete emerges as much more than the bundle of cliches he might have become in other, less competent hands. Bruce and Perry exhibit a tender rapport and a passion for getting down to the bottom of a character that keep Puddin and Pete's journey fascinating.

Written in 1934 by Langston Hughes, Mulatto was translated and performed in Italy, Argentina, and Japan before finally being published in America--in 1974. Director Stephan B. Turner, whose current production of Mulatto is playing late nights at Shattered Globe, wonders in a program note if this delay might not have something to do with the nature of commercial theater in America. With all respect to Turner (and to Hughes, whose poetry I've always admired), I have to wonder if it might not be because the play is bad. So bad, in fact, that I also have to wonder why commercial theater hasn't leapt on it. Peopled by conventions instead of characters, reveling morbidly in the oppression of African Americans, highly melodramatic, it reminds me of nothing so much as a southern gothic potboiler.

Colonel Tom Norwood (James C. Krulish) is the morally bankrupt owner of a 30s Georgia plantation staffed entirely by black servants and sharecroppers. One of his servants, Cora (Michelle Williams), has given him a number of mulatto children, whom he refuses to acknowledge. Trouble brews when one of these children, Robert (Daniel Barcelona), decides that he's "half white and gonna act like it." This opens the way for much abuse, and lines like "That damn nigra yella buck of yours has got some mighty aggravatin' ways," delivered in a more or less southern accent depending on who's speaking. Krulish dispenses with the accent entirely, but Fron Carley, as a neighboring senator, lays it on thick and loud enough for both of them. This production also features some unfortunate stereotypes: a valet who rolls his eyes and shuffles in a manner I had hoped never to see imposed on a black performer in my lifetime and an unkempt overseer who blows his nose into a doily a servant has painstakingly worked.

The casting of Robert is a puzzle. It's hard to get hold of a copy of this script, so I don't know if it was the playwright's or Turner's idea to cast a white actor. In either case it may be an attempt to make a point--you can be white as a lily, yet with one drop of African blood you're treated like dirt--but that point gets lost in the absurdity of the script, this production, and the sight of Barcelona onstage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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