Tried and True

Stereotyped black images stand trial at Karamu.

One of the enduring pleasures of watching Gone With the Wind is seeing Hattie McDaniel play Mammy, the protective and sassy maid who often puts Scarlett in her place with a sideways glance or a well-placed harrumph. That's the trouble with some of the hackneyed historical images of African Americans: They can be so endearing that they camouflage the pain and hurt they cause.

That error is corrected with a vengeance in The Trial of One Shortsighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae, now at Karamu. Structured as a quasi-courtroom drama and set in the hold of a slave ship, the defendants are two iconic representations of black womanhood: the good-natured Mammy and the sexually smoldering Safreeta Mae. Playwright Karani M. Leslie has imagined a stellar premise, and though some parts are overdone and redundant, there are scenes that are absolutely corrosive in their candor.

The trial has been instigated by a complaint from Victoria Dryer, a polished, modern black professional, who is treated as a token in her mostly white, high-tech workplace. She is righteously aggrieved by how the negative images of the aforementioned plantation-era women affect her life. So she and her lawyer (played with smooth incisiveness by Kimberly L. Brown) seek to remove those images from the media.

Sitting across from them are the two defendants, who say little during the first act -- which includes far too much verbal sparring between the lawyers. Even the flat-screen presentations of clips from films, showing various stereotypical entertainments, doesn't help the pacing, and the whole thing almost grinds to a halt before intermission.

But fasten your seat belt for act two, when the defendants emerge as real, dimensional people. Errin Berry is soft and sensuous as Safreeta Mae, looking as if she's just been ripped from the cover of a pulp novel about the Old South. But Berry displays Safreeta's core of steel as she explains why she "enticed" her master, who also turns out to have a devastating secret. Equally compelling is the testimony of Mammy, portrayed with understated power by Morris Cammon, who reveals a side that totally belies her shuffling, obsequious image.

But perhaps the best performance is turned in by Michael May, a black actor who plays all the male roles. His turn as witness Leroi Johnson is amusing, but he galvanizes the stage when he returns as the defendant's slave owner. Once he starts speaking, you believe he's Strom Thurmond reborn, especially when he drawls matter-of-factly, "I don't think it's possible to mistreat a slave." When the black defense counsel makes a motion, he snaps, "I don't think I like your tone, missy!" The goose bumps confirm you're face to face with a monster.

Director Tony Sias brings out captivating performances from his cast, although sleek Kendra Norris is out of her depth as Victoria. Her simplistic interpretation falls well short of capturing this character's multilayered complexity. Still, this is one trial that demands attention.