Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Theater review: Black at the Assassination is a long, overly-emphasized history lesson
The playwrights seem to have lost the story amid their research.
OAK CLIFF The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is one month away, almost to the day. Across the country, but especially here in Dallas, films, symposiums, lectures, and all degrees of arts events have been and will continue to be shown and heard in an effort to pay respect, honor, commiserate and ponder both the man and how the tragedy affected our country, its people and the world before, during and after.
From the visual and performing arts perspective, galleries are filled with photographs and paintings focused on the JFK era. Plays and musicals draw attention to and pick out moments from that fateful day in order to teach, to learn, to reflect. While all of the focus on JFK is well-meaning and important, few artistic endeavors delve on the citizens of Dallas on November 22, 1963. We’ve seen photographs of the disbelieving and tearstained faces of those who stood on the streets and grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza to catch a glimpse of the president. But what about those who were listening on radios, watching on TV or heard about it second hand from a family member or friend? What were they thinking and feeling that day? What about the children in the classrooms – how could their teacher possibly explain in a way they would understand what had happened or why such a thing could occur?
Playwrights Kyndal Robertson and Camika Spencer, both local artists, were commissioned by TeCo Theatrical Productions’ executive artistic director, Teresa Coleman Wash, to search for some answers. They narrowed the focus down to the African-American experience, writing a fictional story based on actual accounts from the community. They did extensive research, pouring over countless newspaper articles, reading books and the entire Warren Commission Report and interviewing people who were in Dallas that day, including Robertson’s mother, age 10 at the time, and a man who worked at the Texas School Book Depository. The culmination of their efforts is Black at the Assassination being performed by TeCo at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Oak Cliff.
The play is written in five vignettes, including a fifth-grade classroom, an empty room of the Trade Mart where protestors from the Negros Teachers Association were waiting to greet JFK, and a church where the sermon was not on acceptance and peace but on keeping the fight alive.
TeCo’s stage is classic proscenium with raised floor and side steps. Black curtains drape the back wall and wing space. The set was designed simplistically by Cameron Hefty, using no walls or doors but certain pieces for each scene, the most defined being the classroom with school desks and chairs on rolling platforms, a small chalkboard on an easel and the American flag. A hanging window frame, the odd chair, table and crates made up the Trade Mart room, and an acrylic lectern with a white cross and purple fabric banner wrapped around it became the minister’s pulpit. In the properties department, the chalk used on the green chalkboard was completely invisible to the audience; a black board might have been more effective.
The use of slides, films and videos projected on the back of the stage and on the side walls of the theater was what brought the set to life, reflecting scenes of what was happening in our country culturally and politically in the early '60s, especially in the black communities. A short, rather slanted promo film on the greatness of Dallas set an ominous tone for the scenes to follow. Viewing two home films of the motorcade and shooting was still as wrenching as the first time we saw them. Scene four is a video of Chief Justice Earl Warren citing the Commission’s decision on civil and voting rights and school segregation. The play’s last vignette travels rapidly through the following 40 years, each decade defined by a photograph of the president at the time and a bit of the country’s historical and cultural imagery. It was unfortunate no credit was given to the visuals as they were effective tools to place the audience within the time capsule.
Sound design by Director Becki McDonald had gospel music reigning over the theater at pre-show and during intermission. Bits of popular music from each decade supported the visuals. The gun shot from the supposed TV made a few of us jump, accordingly.
Some nice period pieces rounded out Cathey Ann Fears’ costume design. While the school children wore mostly their own clothes, a few girls had on below the knee, fuller skirts and (I believe) saddle shoes. A couple of narrow cut, shiny suits and shorter-brimmed fedoras worked for some of the men, the rest in everyday, more current attire. The best costumes were the two-piece, short-waisted, jacquard suits in different colors for the working women and churchgoers, straight out of the Jackie Kennedy fashion book.
Lighting by Cameron Hefty was an unfortunate, uneven balance in level, tone and focus. There was a general wash across the middle of the stage, but anyone moving a step or two back had their chest illuminated but their head in shadow, a step or two to the sides and they were completely in darkness. The extreme front of the stage had blazing spotlights for narrative monologues to the audience but stage right or left was again darkened. I kept looking up at instruments on the lighting bars over the audience, wondering why several were not being used, as it would have made a tremendous difference to be able to see all the actors all the time.
Acting across the board was adequate and, in a few instances, good. The children all had their professional acting attitudes in place, with only a bit of shifting of feet and looking out at the audience. Those with longer monologues delivered them clearly, with hardly a slip of the lines. Some of the adult actors could have taken a lesson from the children, stumbling on lines more than they should have. However, a few were quick on the improv when a sound cue held up a crucial moment in the scene. The best-acted scene was the first half of scene five in the church, the minister preaching to his congregation made up of both the audience and the actors sitting amongst us.
Direction for Black at the Assassination was completely hit and miss. Cues were continuously slow and unenergetic. Blocking was erratic, with no definitive staging. The adults, especially, seemed to be making it up as they went along. There was also no definition as to who most of the characters were, what their motive was in the scene or their relationship to each other. Most of that, however, came from the extremely uneven tone and complete lack of arc from the script.
Robertson and Spencer had an objective in mind when they wrote Black at the Assassination – to shed light on what the black people were doing in Dallas that day, and how the tragedy affected them. They spoke to people that were there and are still so traumatized by the incident they can hardly speak about it today. Through all their extensive, in depth research and interviewing, the playwrights lost the story aspect of the play and instead ended up with one long, overly-emphasized history lesson.
The amount of facts and exposition crammed into the 90-minute play left no room for any character action or reaction whatsoever. The unnatural dialogue was full of information for the audience’s knowledge, but left no actual understanding of how the people felt; it was like dialogue with footnotes. The audience never got to know any of the people the playwrights showed us – not the mother to her daughter, not the teacher to her students, not the protestors to each other — except for when they let loose and danced with each other to pass the time. The only scene, as I mentioned earlier, that held any realistic dialogue was the minister to his congregation. The words were truthful, the give and take recognizable, and we in the audience could sense the characters’ emotion and determination to keep up the good fight. The rest of the play was nothing but historical fact upon fact, recited by the characters in stilted, unrealistic fashion. People don’t recite facts when they are speaking to each other about something that just happened – they speak of their anger, their fear, their wants and desires, not a description of who someone was or what he or she did in history. The many references to our radio and TV stations and their respective DJs or reporters may be a fun flash to the past for audiences in this city, but it certainly wouldn’t fly outside Dallas, and the intent of this play is one that needs to be relatable beyond our city’s borders.
The playwrights forgot about their audience and didn’t respect them enough to remember that they are intelligent and actually come in knowing this time in history. Audiences don’t want to be lectured. Instead, they want to get a sense of how the play’s (or film’s) characters FELT and their relationship with and to each other, and for this play in particular, what it was truly like to have been here in Dallas in the '60s and on that day in November. Ms. Wash asked, “What if 50 years later these same people [that were interviewed] come to this show and experience catharsis?” Unfortunately, I believe the catharsis was more for Robertson and Spencer than for the people for which the play is written.
I recommend Black at the Assassination as an amazingly concise, sometimes moving history book, full of information that will garner a glimpse of what living in Dallas was like, especially as to our deeply flawed political leanings. The play, however, does not go any deeper than that. At the end of the play, after the decades roll by to 2013, the characters ask the audience, “Dallas, what will YOU do?” I wish I had an answer but, unfortunately, I never got the chance to know what Dallas DID.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column