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A Sense of Race

Theater Preview: In the Blood and Review: Cabaret


Published April 5, 2006 at 4:00 a.m.

The most notorious letter in American literature is Nathaniel Hawthorne's scarlet "A." In his 1850 novel, set in 17th-century Massachusetts, Puritan society casts out Hester Prynne for bearing a child conceived out of wedlock. Condemned to wear the vivid badge of her sin forever, Hester lives with her daughter Pearl at the settlement's rugged edge -- a metaphorical purgatory between civilization and wilderness. Meanwhile, the specter of hypocrisy stalks the self-righteous townspeople.

Contemporary African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks brings Hester's story of marginalization into the 21st century with In the Blood, a visceral riff on the themes, characters and setting of The Scarlet Letter. Jaye Austin Williams, a guest artist in the Middlebury College theater department, is directing a talented student cast in a weekend production of the powerful play.

In the Blood confronts a range of hot-button social issues, including racism, poverty and homelessness, in a way that's bound to shake things up on the idyllic liberal campus. "This is going to rock the boat a little bit," says senior Jon Ellis. "Sometimes good intentions just aren't good enough."

Sophomore Knef King notes that the play addresses "things that are quite shocking. The mind instantly wants to rebel against it. Ignorance is bliss, and this certainly isn't bliss."

In the play, Hester is living under a bridge with five children ranging in age from 2 to 13. Their fathers take no responsibility for them. As an African-American woman at the fringe of society, Hester struggles to be a good parent and create a semblance of normalcy for her family. Her oldest son, Jabber, is trying to teach her to read and write. The only letter she has mastered so far: "A."

Institutions intended to lift Hester up instead keep her down. The Welfare Lady articulates society's by-your-bootstraps, Darwinian code. "The world is not here to help us, Hester," she notes. "The world is simply here. We must help ourselves." Even the church condescends, admits Reverend D., the televangelist who fathered Hester's youngest child. "That is how we like our poor. At arm's length. Like a distant relation with no complication."

The social and physical conditions of early colonial New England and modern urban America differ radically. Yet the essential truth for both Hesters remains the same. Society rejects her for failing to conform to its standards, while the outward manifestation of sin -- her offspring -- is her only source of joy and light.

Early in the rehearsal process, Williams and her cast spent time exploring thematic connections between the novel and the play. Both Hawthorne and Parks isolate "a terrifying phenomenon about human nature: what the collective unconscious can do in the way of ostracizing people," Williams says. "What we're talking about here in In the Blood is an insidious lettering, an insidious . . . branding and castigation."

Senior Charly Nixon, who plays Hester, notes that Hester's aspirations are circumscribed in both eras because she is a woman. Labels "keep her in a bubble so she'll never blossom."

Race is not an issue in The Scarlet Letter, but it is a major theme for Parks. Although this is the first time Williams has directed In the Blood, the African-American woman who grew up in Harlem has acted in and directed other works by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. She loves the way Parks "confronts our American culture about its self-deluded notions" and demands that we "get un-deluded."

Williams notes that Americans always find something seemingly more urgent to focus on -- today, it's Iraq and immigration; the topic of race slides conveniently to the back burner. "We . . . can't deal with the fact that we have systematically psychically scarred a people on whose backs this nation's commerce was founded," she says. In the Blood acknowledges "the tragedy of African-American life, and the degree to which our striving has been mutated and thwarted and beaten down and virtually destroyed in this culture."

She remembers an ugly encounter with racism at age 7. A white teacher falsely accused her of beating up other kids and stealing their milk money. "It was a predominantly white school, and I was the blackest thing there. And this teacher . . . took me and my long wavy hair and light-skinned self and sat me in the dunce seat and persecuted me just as if I was as black as the blackest African you could find." Today, because of her fair complexion, she notes, "white people will say to me, 'Well, you don't look black.' That doesn't comfort me, or reassure me, because you can't edit or alter or comfort or relieve any of what my experience has been."

The members of her multiracial Middlebury cast -- all six of whom are a generation younger than Williams -- have experienced racism differently. But they express a refreshing optimism that art has an important role to play in overcoming prejudice. "As soon as you've got somebody's ear and you've got somebody's eyes, that's 90 percent of the battle," says Knef King. "Because people don't want to look, they don't want to listen a lot of the time. Once you grab their attention, the truth speaks for itself. You can either accept it or reject it, but once you've seen it or heard it, you can't say that you haven't."

Charly Nixon thinks In the Blood will find a receptive audience in the Middlebury community. "The play is intense, but it also has its humor, it has its wittiness. It shows that these are consequences of what will happen if we don't do anything." At Middlebury, she says, "if someone doesn't like what's going on with their rights, whether they be students, faculty or staff, they will stand up for them. This play is really screaming out, 'Stand up for your rights. Stand up for what you believe in.'"

Can art really create change? "Hell, yeah," asserts freshman Will Damron. "That's what it's there for. I have blind faith in that." For their ardor and ambition, Williams and her cast have certainly earned a solid "A."


With the Bush regime's fondness for warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, propaganda euphemistically called "spin" and endless blather about the homeland, some cynics detect the scent of dictatorship wafting out of Washington. So what better time to indulge in a little late Weimar Republic-style decadence? Willkommen to Cabaret, Northern Stage's provocative production of John Kander and Fred Ebb's bold and bawdy musical.

Josh Prince directed and choreographed a lively evening at the White River's Briggs Opera House -- transformed into Berlin's Kit Kat Klub -- full of vintage lingerie, sexual innuendo and more booty-shaking than you see in rap videos. The energetic cast not only sang, danced and acted with commitment and verve, but had six members playing instruments in the kick-ass Kit Kat Band as well. Some of the multitasking men even did it in heels!

Set in 1930, Cabaret exposes Germany's urban underbelly on the eve of the Holocaust. As the social and political unrest increases, everyone tries to keep from drowning in a raging river of denial. The young anesthetize themselves with sex and alcohol. The old cling to a sanguine spirit of survival -- having endured Germany's humiliation and economic devastation after World War I, they believe the worst is over.

Act I brings bright-eyed American writer Clifford Bradshaw to Berlin in search of stories. He finds a cheap room at the elderly Fräulein Schneider's boarding house, and a complicated relationship ensues with nightclub performer Sally Bowles, who makes herself his roommate after meeting him once at the Kit Kat Klub. Other colorful characters living at the house include Fräulein Kost, who "entertains" sailors for pay, and Herr Schultz, who runs a fruit shop and gently romances his landlady.

Sally, the Berlin nightlife and a Kit Kat boy named Bobby all seduce Cliff. He has little time for writing, and makes ends meet by giving English lessons and running mysterious errands to Paris for a German friend. When that friend's sinister connections become apparent, everyone must choose sides, and Cliff, Sally and the Jewish Herr Schultz must decide whether to flee their beloved Berlin forever.

Kander and Ebb broke new ground when Cabaret premiered in 1966. They hybridized a traditional "book" musical -- where the songs advance the storyline -- with a new form, the "concept" musical, in which theme and style take precedence over plot. A character called the Emcee presides over the show, taking center stage for the action at the nightclub, then lurking or playing bit parts in scenes that take place elsewhere.

The Emcee's looming, pansexual presence sets the tone of the show, and an excessively campy interpretation of the role can distract from the story's emotional punch. Kevin Loreque modulated his performance brilliantly. He hit all the right notes with mischievous raunchiness in the wild dance numbers "Two Ladies" and "Money," goofy sincerity in his love song to a gorilla, "If You Could See Her," and meditative mournfulness in "I Don't Care Much." His leer never became a sneer; his character strutted with a confidence more winsome than arrogant.

Jenn Taber captured the bundle of contradictions that is Sally Bowles: brash yet vulnerable, ballsy but insecure, the party girl who feels terribly alone. Taber tackled Sally's brace of big songs with vigor, skillfully building the emotional architecture of each number. She sang to reveal elements of Sally's character, not just to show off her terrific voice. "Maybe This Time" had a smoky soulfulness, while Taber gave "Cabaret" a bitter poignancy more authentic than Liza Minelli's famous movie version.

SuEllen Estey, as the slightly dotty Fräulein Schneider, and Damian Buzzerio, as doting suitor Herr Schultz, made a convincing pair of older lovers, providing comic relief to the more tortured relationship between Cliff and Sally. Gordon Gray demonstrated Cliff's innocence with an eager friskiness, while Elena Gronlund portrayed Fräulein Kost's no-nonsense attitude with sloe-eyed stoniness.

Music director Edward Barnes, playing keyboards, led the rollicking nine-person Kit Kat Band from its onstage perch. The musicians' big, brassy sound helped power the enthusiastic dance numbers. Josh Prince's choreography was full of delicious and innovative details, such as the sexy musical chairs of "Mein Herr" and the lighted tin cups in "Money." Costume designer Jessica Risser-Milne made elegant period choices. For example, she confined the lingerie color palette to ivory and black -- except for Sally, who wore bold magenta and teal.

There was only one technical glitch on opening night: intermittent problems with the lead singers' wireless body microphones. Despite the intimacy of the Briggs Opera House, the singers needed amplification because of the horns in the band. Volume control was sketchy, and during "Married" there was actually some feedback and static.

Nevertheless, Cabaret is worth the journey to the Junction. Whether you see it as an evening of great songs and risque dancing, or a cautionary tale about the perils of misplaced patriotism, Cabaret provokes and entertains. In fact, it feels downright fresh for a show that just turned 40.