Dallas — This season Teatro Dallas offers something different than their usual programming for the Days of the Dead celebration. Rather than one of their Chicano or Mexican-based plays, they offer a creative new mix of multi-racial Americana, with a strong African-American presence. Collaboration seems to be in the air for Dallas area Latina/o theaters, as Cardona joins hands with Phyllis Cicero and Bill Fountain in directing three short plays for one evening of entertainment. Death, expertly played by Teatro Dallas’ Marbella Barreto, opens the action and intertwines each of the three pieces. She ultimately has the last silent word.
For the first play, Cocaine, imagine the 1970 film The Great While Hope (originally a play written by Howard Sackler which opened in 1967 at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage Theater, winning a Pulitzer, a Tony and a New York Critics award in 1969). Jane Alexander and James Earl Jones starred as a black boxer and Alexander as his white wife. In a similar vein, but evidently earlier version of a similar theme, a would-be younger black boxer, Joe (J.R. Bradford), and Nora (Karla Portillo), an older while woman (in this case a lady of the night) are both addicted to the powdery white stuff. The TD production is based on the little-known American actor and playwright, John Pendleton King II (1889-1919), the grandson of a wealthy Georgia senator who eventually made his way to New York City.
According to The Provincetown Playhouse website it appears that “…eighth bill of the Players first New York season (1916-17) was Cocaine, the first and only play the Players performed by Pendleton King…” The one-act play was critically hailed as a well-written tragedy, albeit a bit “too realistic” for the times. Apparently Pendleton King played Joe.
The director for the TD production, Dallas area director/actor Phyllis Cicero, stages this version in the 1920’s (signaled by the Scott Joplin tune), staying true to the language of the times. In this regard, the language may sound a bit dated to our ears (Joe: “I’m putting it to you square…”). A story of obsessive love turns a curious absurdist corner when first Joe and then Nora come up with an ingenious solution to their lack of money to buy cocaine. Where the piece falls a bit short is in the ability to convince us of Joe and Nora’s desperation. Karla Portillo (Nora) is much more convincing in the third play, The Strange Rider, as the Aristocrat Virgin. It struck me that she has an innate talent for comedy (of course, watch her prove me wrong in her next work!). As far as J.R. Bradford’s Joe, it is unclear how deeply his feelings truly ran for Nora.
The Ballad of Jane Elkins, directed by Cora Cardona, was written by the contemporary Dallas area playwright Anyika McMillan—Herod (founder of Soul Rep in 1996), is currently one of the four local playwrights selected for the Dallas Theater Center’s second Dallas Playwrights Workshop under the direction of Will Power (this play was also presented in Soul Rep's play festival this year). It is by far the most poignant of the three short plays, bringing a dark piece of Texas history to life: the first recorded execution of a female slave in Dallas County in 1853. McMillan—Herod reconstructs an historical event from Jane Elkins’ point of view, speaking her tale from beyond the grave. In the role of Jane, Sidney Hewitt totally mesmerizes. I could not keep my eyes off this wonderful talent. In what is basically a monologue, she tells the story of the abuse she suffered at the hands of widower Master Wisdom (Omar Padilla) and his young son Sam (Joshua Bowman), and to a lesser degree the young daughter Lisbeth (Saffron Herdon). Silently interwoven is the imposing figure of Ancestor (Dominique Edwards), which incorporates the traditional Afro-centric belief that our ancestors not only watch and protect human beings from beyond the grave, but in many cultures they are deified as sacred beings. Due to the nature of the violence against Jane, this piece will make some feel uncomfortable.
The third play, The Strange Rider, written by Michel de Ghelderode (Belgium, 1898-1962) and directed by Texas-based Bill Fountain, is an ensemble piece that takes place in a turn-of-the-century old folk’s home. A macabre twist drives the action, when one of the elderly called the Watchman (Omar Padilla) sees her, Death (Marbella Barreto), coming. He invites her to their pavilion, causing much commotion among those present, exposing their fears. The full cast of characters in the senior pavilion: J.R. Bradford (Romain), Karla Portillo (Aristocrat Virgin), Orlando Rojas (Achilles), Sidney Hewitt (Claire), Dominique Edwards (Dominique), and Fernando Lara (Gommaire). Who will Death take with her? Her selection provides an unexpected closure to this entertaining piece, and a final dance of death makes us all celebrate of the preciousness of life.
The Three Short Plays in Teatro Dallas’ Festival of Death demonstrates the power not only of artistic collaborations, but of collaborations across race and cultures. The more audiences get used to seeing actors together on the same stage playing beyond ethnic and racial type-casting, the more quickly we will begin to see that life and death play out their cyclical dance beyond our artificially-constructed racial and social distinctions.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas