The Collard Green is a compilation of African American and African poems and poetic prose pieces, delivered in an intense style by three black actresses (Tamela Aldridge, Indira Etwaroo, and Tamera Xavier) and accompanied by drums, keyboard, and guitar (collectively played by Henry Afro-Bradley, Thaddeus Daniels, and Norman Small, Jr.) The style involved a lot of large gestures and declamation, a sort of reader's theatre (or what has been called story theatre) but with costumes (reconstituted from multiple-purpose pieces of fabric and even the scenery) and some acting cubes.
As drama, The Collard Green lacks crucial elements: character, action, and conflict. While these writings of Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, J. Nozipo Maraire, Winnie Mandela, Mariama Ba, Toni Morrison, and others are full of images and feelings that bring to life the black experience, they are not (and have not been molded into) a dramatic text in any recognizable sense. What stands in for continuity is provided by a mythic story of the origin of women, and of how men envied their ability to bring forth life -- to the extent of self-mutilation to imitate the women. The segments are still recitations of external texts, rather than the creation of dramatic stories using dialog. Nevertheless, despite the sneaking feeling that this evening was intended to be good for us, it also conveyed many moments of fun, sexiness, and sensual beauty.
Perhaps two of the most harrowing portions are descriptions of female circumcision (from Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alice Walker) and of a sort of female death squad (from The Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison) whose mission is to exact vengeance from white people -- any white people, guilty or seemingly innocent -- in response to outrages against blacks. There are also invocations of poverty, racism, religion, sex, and motherhood: themes that are certainly not unique to the black experience, but which are woven deeply into it.
As theatre, it was sometimes stunningly concise and imaginative, even using smell (by blowing perfumed powder into the audience) to set a scene. The set (Indira Etwaroo) comprised cubes and pieces of scrim that hung down from the lighting grid and, when pulled down, became costume pieces. (Until pulled down, the fabric sometimes got in the way of the actors' blocking.) The lighting (Kimo DeSean) used a lot of saturated yellows and complemented the fluid, satiny costumes (Matthew Etwaroo). The live music, in which the musicians doubled as extra performers, completed the integration of theatrical elements.
It is good to see the John Montgomery Theatre Company reaching out across the racial divide to enrich the theatrical conversation for us all. The next step is perhaps for the likes of Suzanne Bachner, JMTC's artistic director, to enrich the conversation further with the dramatic invention that is lacking in this work but is the hallmark of hers.
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Copyright 2004 John Chatterton