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Lately, the Ensemble Theatre has been producing plays full of social and political commentary that can make for terrifically ambitious theater. Bertolt Brecht, August Wilson and Aristophanes have shown how to raise a political issue out of the polemical mire, then frame it into the wondrous landscape of human experience, complete with stories, fully realized characters and places that feel somehow real and recognizable. But without the story or the place or the characters, commentary begins to feel less like art, less like astute, critical observation and more like a Sunday school lesson. And though the Ensemble's lessons are noble and upstanding, lessons are not art.
But then along comes a production such as Buses, by Denise Nicholas -- perhaps the Ensemble's most interesting offering this year. The play examines an enormous social issue: the way we construct history according to our political and moral ideologies. Even better, it creates some astonishing and delicately intimate moments between two genuinely moving characters who also happen to be historical figures.
It's a surreal and magical story that unfolds in the most ordinary of places, a Montgomery, Alabama, bus stop. The lights come up on a middle-aged and worn-out Rosa Parks, who is quietly minding her own business as she sits on a wooden bench, waiting for the bus to take her home from a day's work. It's late. She's got her big brown pocketbook and her flowered satchel of crochet and mending. Wearing a homemade tan suit, wire-rimmed glasses and sensible, lace-up shoes, she's the picture of modesty and clean, upright Christian living, every bit the picture of the fine American hero.
Onto this well-ordered and familiar scene, and out of the dark and ghostly past, tumbles Mary Ellen Pleasant with a whirl of smoke and a mouthful of curses, wearing a fancy black-silk bustled dress and high-buttoned shoes. Seems she's just been pitched, bags and all, off an 18th-century San Francisco trolley right into Rosa Parks's world. In this magical way, history folds in on itself.
The audacious play teeters constantly at the edge of outlandish histrionics, but somehow it works. The story that unfolds from this intriguing introduction manages to stay strange and theatrically magical even as the characters open their hearts and enormous histories to us.
This play is in part about the way in which we construct our heroes. The hugely famous Rosa Parks, whose public persona is that of a quiet, utterly determined, strait-laced reformer, stands in stark contrast to the obscure historical figure of Mary Ellen Pleasant. Pleasant, an ex-slave freedom fighter who helped fund the Underground Railroad and John Brown's fatal raid, was a far cry from the demure and modest Parks. She bedded many men, invented identities and made up histories about herself to outwit slavers. She traveled to New Orleans and learned voodoo, and was bound to a Quaker family in Nantucket. During the San Francisco gold rush, she made millions running houses of ill repute. She was, in many ways, everything we don't want our heroes to be -- wild, quixotic and exotic. Nothing like Rosa Parks.
But it was Pleasant who sued and won a settlement from the city of San Francisco in 1868 when she was thrown off a trolley -- 90 years before Parks's famous refusal. Pleasant also brought countless slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad; and her numerous business establishments, both the upstanding and the unsavory types, provided jobs for African-Americans when few jobs were to be found.
Though all this may sound like a history lesson, Buses manages to tell Pleasant's life story in an engrossing and weirdly mesmerizing fashion. This production -- whose lighting creates a backwoods burning fire and a big open cauldron -- underscores the feeling of magic and mystery in the play (though at times the lights were shifting so constantly that they were distracting). And though the Ensemble's smaller secondary theater is not nearly as comfortable as its larger space, this production had an immediacy and intensity that shows in the larger space have not been able to create.
But the single major strength of this show is the acting. Joyce Anastasia (as Rosa Parks) and Jean Donatto (as Mary Ellen Pleasant) are two strikingly different actresses. Anastasia plays the prudish Parks as the archetypical American hero -- a straight-backed, strong-armed, solid woman. She knows right from wrong. But during Act Two, when Rosa Parks reveals all she went through to get to her famous act of defiance, she breaks down and reveals her heartbreakingly quiet desperation.
Donatto's Pleasant, on the other hand is loud, crass, feral and altogether strange. She is childlike in her awkward button boots and with her wide-open, petulant eyes. "I want what you have," she tells Rosa Parks, with her chin stuck out like an angry little girl; Pleasant wants her place in history. That's why she's come to this Montgomery bus stop, to get what Parks has. But while she is childlike, she is also all woman. She knows about men, wine and cheese, and it is Pleasant who feeds and nourishes Parks as they sit waiting on the bus, suggesting the strength, power and wisdom to be gleaned from history. She is a woman who has responded to her world and reconstructed herself many times. She wears many faces.
We see that both these historical figures were themselves products of history. But this play also reveals that Parks and Pleasant were women first -- not just names in the history they helped create.
Buses plays through April 26 at the Ensemble Theater, 3535 Main, 520-0055.