A Dark Cry for Shared Humanity

Delroy_LindoIt’s exciting to go to a new play starring the ever-powerful Delroy Lindo. Naomi Wallace’s Things of Dry Hours at New York Theatre Workshop bites off a heavy piece of history: black participation in the U.S. Communist party during the l930s in Birmingham, Alabama. This is both the strength and the weakness of her play. There is too much preaching and reiteration of their difficult situation in this two-and-one-half-hour production; at times we are treated to pure debate rather than drama. But the painful need of these Southern blacks to join the political process, to make a difference, to help themselves and others at the bottom of society is a powerful subject, and at times deeply engaging.

Lindo plays Tice Hogan, a Sunday school teacher and sometimes park worker during the hard days of the Depression. Recently laid off by Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI), Tice is a man full of passion, the rocks of his faith being his two books: the Bible and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. His widowed daughter Cali (movingly played by Roslyn Ruff) is a hard-nosed realist who resists joining the party but loves her father fiercely.

The one white character is Corbin Teel, a man on the run who seeks to hide in their home. When he is initially rejected by Tice, Teel threatens to go to the police and falsely claim that it was Tice who urged him to attack his foreman at work -- the crime from which he is running -- and that Tice is a dirty, criminal anarchist. A black man had much to fear at that time, both from the police and from TCI, which was anti-union, anti-Communist, and most willing to violently put down any imagined insurrection.

So Tice Hogan takes in Corbin Teel, and thus begins the slow dance involving whose ideology will prevail. Teel is poor, white, and uneducated, what we might label a redneck cracker. But he also seems hungry to learn. And yet, he might have a hidden agenda. Tice and Cali both try to keep Teel at arm’s length, but with each he is peculiarly seductive: urging Tice to take him to a meeting and teach him about communism (playing to Tice’s love of a challenge), and seeking from Cali a more erotic satisfaction (which she has clearly been missing for some time).

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction of this three-character play is somewhat uneven. His use of gritty down-home blues music, evocative lighting, and a marvelous ballet of washed sheets is certainly effective. But a number of the scenes are confusing in ways that undercut emotional connection. The very beginning of the play is particularly problematic. Has Tice fallen from the sky and somehow landed on the earth outside his old home? It may be a mythic arrival, but with all the lights and sounds going on, it becomes a very unclear opening to a complicated story. The character of Teel is also not only mysterious, but sometimes unconvincing. For starters, his look is all wrong, coming off more like a New England preppie gone country than down-and-out Southern white trash. (Get rid of the expensive contemporary haircut.)

Ultimately, although one is engaged by the cat-and-mouse story and the tensions produced by these three people awkwardly inhabiting a small domestic space, it is difficult to become emotionally involved in the story. Despite the lyrical language that raises the characters to a more symbolic level, something is amiss. Naomi Wallace may be trying too hard to teach us something about history, and, unfortunately, such a motivation is likely to be the death of theater, where the rule is “show me, don’t tell me.”

Buried within this overly talky play is a lean and scary drama that could be way more powerful. The dangerous arrival of a white stranger into the sanctity of the black home, and the sexual tension he provokes in Cali, as well as other racial and political issues, all cry out for a gutsier and more focused handle. Wallace needs to go back to the drawing board and to trust her audience more. The subject itself deserves a fiercer art. - Victoria Sullivan

New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth Street
Plays through June 28, 2009

victoria.jpg

Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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