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Misogyny is Alive and Well in 'Two by Tennessee' at Karamu 

click to enlarge stage-photo_by_colleen_albrecht.jpg

Photo by Colleen Albrecht

"No means no," said no Tennessee Williams character, ever. Rather, the female personas drawn by the 20th century's leading playwright were almost perpetually victimized — if not by the men in their lives, then certainly by the decadent Southern patriarchy that Williams traced so vividly.

That Williams could render these women — girls, in many cases — as both deeply flawed and profoundly sympathetic was a hallmark of his genius. And it reflects the playwright's overall mastery of character, a novelist's ability to create riveting roles of depth, complexity and nuance, with an economy of words.

Karamu, and director Latecia Delores Wilson, are to be commended for tackling two such heavy Williams works: the one-act plays This Property is Condemned and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, both set in Depression-era rural Mississippi, both exploring "mature" subject matter that includes rape, prostitution and domestic violence, and both revolving around damaged and despairing female leads.

The cast that Wilson has assembled is a young one. Condemned lead Yumi Ndhlovu (Willie) is a petite ninth-grader at Hathaway Brown, and Natalie Grace Sipula (Flora in 27 Wagons) is a senior at Andrews Osborne Academy. The men are somewhat older. Andrew Thomas Pope (Condemned's opportunistic Tom) is a senior at Baldwin Wallace University; in 27 Wagons, actor Darelle Hill (as the predatory Silva) is a student at Notre Dame College, and while Andrew Aaron Valdez (a blustering, amoral Jake) has already accrued an impressive resume as director, playwright and teaching artist, the University of Texas – Austin grad still looks young enough to get carded at his local H-E-B.

Perhaps for this reason, their characterizations tend to skim the surface, missing much of the depth, and damage, that Williams has built in.

Of course, casting Condemned's female lead, Willie, is notoriously tricky. Precociously sexual yet childlike, jaded but still clinging to innocence, the character, who Williams described as about 13, could hardly be more bifurcated. And finding a real 13-year-old with the maturity to plumb those dark depths is obviously a challenge. Wilson gets credit for her courage in casting an actual youngster to play this complex role. But unfortunately, while Yumi Ndhlovu is a competent young actress of obvious potential, her performance here as Willie is predictably superficial. Rather than the aspirational whore who Williams gives us, we get a little girl playing dress up.

Something similar can be said about the engaging Sipula, who nonetheless gives us a Flora who is more ditzy than damaged, and who tends to gloss over the gravitas of Flora's exploitation, first by an abusive husband and, second, by a predatory — and vengeful — neighbor. One can only wish that Wilson had been able to coax more complexity and maturity from her talented young performers.

That said, there is still plenty to enjoy in this production. Staged in Karamu's intimate black-box Arena Theatre, the two plays are anchored by a single set that smartly conjures up both the time and the place. A convincing set of railroad tracks — a crucial component of Condemned, which Willie uses to metaphorically walk the line between childhood and degradation — runs down the center of the performance space. And as both the nominal condemned property in the first play, and the slightly less abject home of Flora and her conniving husband, Jake, in the second, the faded yellow house façade crafted by scenic designer Prophet D. Seay performs its double-duty with evocative efficiency. Sound designer Jeremy Dobbins adds to the ambiance too, with a subtle sonic backdrop of crickets, crows and chickadees.

Darelle Hill's performance as outsider Silva Vicarro (in 27 Wagons) is also a lot of fun. From his head (topped with a rakishly tipped fedora) to his toes (clad in spiffy two-toned spectator shoes straight out of the 1930s), Hill oozes a dangerous, but tempting, sexuality. His scenes on the porch with Flora, who he is seducing as revenge for her husband's misdeeds, are a pure delight: Hill can say more, via body language, than some actors could say with an entire thesaurus. And in the process, he seems to energize Sipula's sometimes sleepy performance as she plays off of his sleazy charms.

Despite the tragic subject matter, Williams' plays aren't without a few laughs, either. While one might suppose Flora's seduction would be grim stuff, Hill and Sipula get some chuckles out of double-entendres like "the good neighbor policy" (used mockingly to justify Silva's aggressions toward Flora) and "making lemonade," which in this context means anything but.

A few directorial decisions were interesting, if of questionable necessity. For instance, at the conclusion of the first play, Condemned, Wilson brings 27 Wagons' three actors out of the wings to glide past Willie and Tom in slow motion. Is this her way of indicating the thematic connections between the two plays? Maybe, but it is also confusing, and left the opening-night audience unsure of when to applaud. Even when the actors announced, in character and in unison, that it was time for intermission, no one seemed quite sure whether the first play was over or not.

At about the same time, graffiti-like scrawl appears on the façade of the Condemned property, mostly lifted from the play's dialog: "Help." "Don't touch me." "They take me out at night." "Bad pennies."

We've seen the play. If it's done its job, we shouldn't need a summary of the theme.

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