Saturday, March 20, 2004

Bee-Luther-Hatchee (Karamu)

Script overshadows production at Karamu

For many years Karamu Performing Arts Center was a crown jewel in the Cleveland theatre scene. This, the oldest African-American cultural arts center in the country, has produced the likes of Langston Hughes, Ron O’Neal, Gilbert Moses, Diane McIntyre and Mel Stewart. It brought Reuben and Dorothy Silver, the reigning king and queen of local theatre, to the area to produce and direct the company’s shows for many years.

Unfortunately, the recent past has not been a period of shining light at Karamu. Recently, Terrence Spivey was brought on board to revitalize this important center as the true local voice for Black theatre. Spivey’s first season is entitled, “The Season of the Woman.” His latest offering is ‘BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE’ by Thomas Gibbons.

The story concerns Shelita Burns, a young black New York editor who travels to the south in search of seventy-two year old Libby Price, the author of the award-wining Bee-Luther-Hatchee, meaning “the next stop after hell.”

(Side note: If you are planning on seeing the production stop reading now as I have to include the plot twist in order to talk about the production).

Okay, for those of you still with me… ironically, Libby Price turns out to be a white male. Interestingly, the play’s author Thomas Gibbons is also a white male who has authored a play centering on the lives and history of Black Americans.

The play is very well written and has captivating questions: Do you have to be a member of a cultural group to write about that group, to identify with the feelings of that group? Can a male really empathize with a woman? Can a Catholic view a Jewish-themed play with any compassion? Extending it further, can I (this white male reviewer) have empathy for a play centering on the female African American experience? I, and the white male character in the play say “Yes.” Shelita, the black female doesn’t agree.

As thought-provoking as the play is, the production doesn’t live up to the challenge. There are many positives. Renee Matthews-Jackson captivates as Libby Price. Richard Morris, Jr. has created a wonderful workable set consisting of levels which appropriately look like volumes of books. Spivey uses the stage well. Scenes flow together seamlessly. The problems are the tedious pacing and the mediocre level of acting. Most of the cast is simply not believable. They fail to create real people. There is too much acting and not enough reacting. There is a lot of emoting and little feeling of the intent of the words. Gestures are phony, pantomiming is poor. It’s too bad as they had a wonderful vehicle with which to work.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of the weaknesses of the production, the play is worth seeing. It evokes thinking and forces the viewer to ask questions about himself/herself. That’s not a bad thing for a play to do, not bad at all.