Dallas — The plays we consider major American classics are revived with great frequency, but it will always be important to introduce lesser-known works from the past to audiences who many not have read or seen them—or certainly not in a while.
That’s what Soul Rep Theatre Company achieves with three one-acts by Dr. Ted Shine, a figure in the Black Arts Movement who grew up in Dallas, and lives here now. The Shine Plays features two works, Contribution and Herbert III, that have become staples in educational and black theater. Another work from Shine’s trunk, The Woman Who Was Tampered with in Youth, written in the 1970s, is having its world premiere.
Anyika McMillan-Herod, one of the founders of Soul Rep—which made a welcome return in 2014 after a decade-long break—was a student of Shine’s at A&M Prairie View, and with Soul Rep’s staging at the Margo Jones Theatre, it’s clear the group is passionate about his work.
The first two plays, both directed by Richard Quadri, are remarkably relevant today.
In Contribution, set in the South in the 1960s as Jim Crow laws are crumbling, takes place in the kitchen of Ms. Grace Love (vickie washington), who, along with neighbor Katy (Renee Michéal), is fascinated—and maybe a little jealous—that her grandson Eugene (Jared Wilson) is part of a younger generation of activists who challenge authority by doing things such as sitting at the “whites only” counter. In Grace’s youth, speaking out wasn’t so easy. “The more we prayed, the worse things got,” she says.
There are several lines, like “when a black man speaks out they call him ‘communist’,” that could have come from today’s headlines.
While this generational difference is at the heart of the play—contrast that now with African-Americans who grew up in the ‘60s and are frustrated with younger generations who take so much for granted—there’s a delicious twist when Grace reveals her own brand of payback for decades of second-class citizen treatment. In this sense it recalls plays like Susan Glaspell’s 1916 one-act Trifles, with a sly nod to the idea that karma doesn’t always need to be called attention to.
Nicely directed and performed, Contribution is the best of the bunch.
Herbert III bears even more relevance. Set in an Oak Cliff bedroom in the 1970s, parents Margarette (Anyika McMillan-Herod) and Herbert (Douglas Carter) wake at 3 a.m. She’s concerned about their teenage son (he of the title) being out so late. She wants to call the hospitals and jails; he believes it will all work out. Besides, he has to get up early for work.
The idea of black parents having The Talk with their sons about how to act around police is, again, right out of the headlines, increasingly more so since the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner incidents. The play hits on issues about black struggles, including workplace equity, and because Shine is a Dallasite, it’s fun to catch all the local references, such as Parkland, Oak Lawn and Richardson.
McMillan-Herod, full of motherly concern but also good humor, offers the best performance of the entire showcase in a lovely play that’s more lovely because of its timeliness.
The Woman Who Was Tampered with in Youth, directed by Guinea Bennett-Price and set in the South in the 1970s in Miss Alba Rucker’s (Rhonda Boutté) parlor, is an odd one. Like the other two, it gives us a strong woman character, and Boutté—who is Shine’s neice—is, as always, a fiery pistol.
She recounts the experience of the title with a potential boarder, Miss Simpson (Renee Michéal); and then the object of that story, Billy Bob Smith (a terrific Linus Spiller), shows up all these years later in a plot development that feels more contrived than it should be.
What happens will leave you with an overwhelming sense of discomfort, mostly because it’s antithetical to the confident, smart women of the other two plays. Where Contribution and Herbert III speak volumes about how much (or little) some things have changed, Woman probably won’t win points with anyone concerned about the lasting effects of sexual violence. It’s just creepy.
All three of these plays are set in rooms where conversations happen: kitchen, bedroom and parlor. It was smart for set designers Bennett-Price and Rebecca Breed to put all three sets on the small Margo Jones stage, all at once. This allows for scenic detail without bogging down in long set changes; but it also speaks to the idea of community.
These might be different houses and families, but there are many shared experiences, hopes and dreams.
» Read our interview with Dr. Ted Shine