Friday, February 23, 2001

Theater review: Avenue X

Racial hatred boils over in Shelterhouse drama

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Here's a coincidence: On the same night, Playhouse in the Park and Cincinnati Shakespeare opened dramas about racial hatred, both set to music.

        Cincinnati Shakespeare is re-examining the Bard's Merchant of Venice, Playhouse is offering the regional premiere of Avenue X in the Shelterhouse. If it's a coincidence, it's a happy one for local audiences.

        But not a happily-ever-after one in either case, which is as it should be. Problems which haven't been solved in the history of human experience aren't likely to be wrapped up with a palliative lump of sugar in one evening at the theater.

        Avenue X is about an intersection in Brooklyn one eventful day in the summer of 1963. On one side live the Italians, on the other the African-Americans, moving up in the world from Harlem.

        Everybody wants out, except for the ones who've given up. Pasquale (Jon Stewart) and Milton (Kevin R. Free) see music as a ticket to another place. They meet on common (under)ground — in the sewer below the avenue. They're harmonizing before they can see that one of them is white and the other black.

        Pasquale dreams of winning a neighborhood talent show. His lifelong best friend and Italian stallion in the making Chuck (Roy Chicas) dreams of winning Pasquale's unhappy sister Barbara (Leenya Rideout) who swigs cough syrup for its narcotic content. It's hard to know what Ubazz (Michael Sharon) wants. He's a fine bass but not much of a talker.

        On the other side of the street are Milton's mother Julia (Virginia Ann Woodruff) who in another lifetime was part of a talented singing duo with Roscoe (Jeffrey V. Thompson).

        Their dreams turned to dust when they couldn't break through the color barrier. Julia put the past behind her, Roscoe turned into a mean drunk. Their numbers are completed by Jamaican Winston (Corey Reynolds) who hopes the Nation of Islam holds some answers.

        In the beginning of this particular summer day, these eight performers sing Ray Leslee's melodies, whose innocuous lyrics by John Jiler turn them into B-sides, in duos, trios, quartets, and full ensemble, all a capella.

        It doesn't much matter that the songs all sound like they really were written by not-very-imaginative young composer Pasquale. Just get lost in glorious harmonies and ignore what they're harmonizing on (like “She's Fifteen” standing in for a collection of classics about being "16').

        In between the sweet sounds, Mr. Jiler proves to be better at dialogue than he is at lyrics. It sounds like he's actually spent time on the streets. There's lots of name-calling — dago, pickaninny, spade, faggot — it's not an easy time or an easy place. And if the script dips into the land of cliche, so does life, sometimes.

        The second act turns dead serious with lots of opportunity for fine dramatic turns, especially by Mr. Reynolds (“Africa”), Ms. Woodruff (“Gloria”) and most particularly by Mr. Thompson. He towers over the proceedings throughout, in the first act showing the little wanna-bes from the opposite corners how doo-wop and R&B are done and he delivers a paralyzing second act monologue.

        The action turns darker in the second act (there was plenty of warning in act one, but Mr. Jiler fooled us with a smile) and on opening night a lot of the audience left the theater looking shell-shocked (after a standing ovation).

        Director/choreographer John Ruocco and set designer Narelle Sissons are clearly wonderfully talented but just as clearly are defeated by their first time attacking the constraints of the Shelterhouse stage and blocked sight lines.

        It's still a fine show from the side sections, but it's best from the center where the audience can see the interesting things Mr. Ruocco does with the actors not in a scene and the full dimensionss of Ms. Sisson's set, which features sliding panels of schoolyard chain-link fencing.

        Avenue X, through March 18, Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse. 421-3888.


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