Since the Onyx Theatre Company states its mission as providing opportunities for hearing-impaired people of color, it's hard to understand why the company chose a play with two dozen parts in it and cast every part but one with people who can hear just fine.
The staging was awkward, particularly entrances and exits and ill-conceived scene changes. There was much confusion as to who was who since several characters were shown at drastically wrong ages, with children played by actors as old or older than the actor playing their parents. The company's diction was generally poor, so that exposition was lost. Finally, which characters could hear and which could not--and when--was not always clear.
Certainly the last thing such a company should risk is the "dancing dog" problem: the idea that what astonishes an audience is not that a dog dances well but that it dances at all. Alas, since the play was so melodramatic, there was not much more to say of Patrice Joyner's performance--she being the only hearing-impaired person on the stage--other than that she tried her best to perform an impossible role. She seemed mostly to smile her way through pain, demonstrating healing powers that would be coveted by the most outrageous of charlatans, undergoing a miraculous religious conversion, and zapping the sick to Frankenstein sounds designed by David Wright.
Dee Dixon was much too charming to play the perpetually cross grandmother who held the play together despite such difficult problems as racism, family misfortune, and an unsteady script. But it was a privilege, though an odd one, to see the Oscar-nominated ballerina Leslie Browne in a role too minor to be considered a career move up. Nevertheless, the dance world was generously present on Opening Night.
Jeffrey Collins was remarkably inspiring as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and could definitely consider a career change.
Other actors delivering double- and triple-cast (and decidedly mixed) results included Laura Bowman, Kai M. Reevey, Timothy Joyner, David Hoxter, Anthea Seaman, DeVernie Winston, Benjamin Henderson, Nicole Greevy, and Lenore Pemberton.
The set, by Cornell Riggs, although carefully crafted, was as episodic as the play. The lighting by Alan Baron was fine.
Though many elements were ill-fitting throughout this production, Valerie Donaldson's wardrobe choices were excellent.
But the best part of the evening -- discreet, dignified, simple, and beautiful to watch -- was provided to hearing-impaired members of the audience by the two performing interpreters: Lisa Weems and Gerald Small. Their story-telling translations in American Sign Language elegantly brought to life the moving and wondrous signed world to which the theatre of the deaf should always aspire.
Copyright 1996 Marshall Yaeger
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