Drums of Injustice

The civil rights movement played out in the streets of urban America. And TV cameras rolled, forever capturing the violence accompanying that fight. But some of that crusade happened far from the public eye, in small, intimate places, involving the most unlikely of characters.Thomas Meloncon's The Drums of Sweetwater, at The Ensemble, explores the way the civil rights movement whipped through a mental hospital in a backwoods Texas town.

The lights come up on James Thomas's evocative set. The wide, empty room of lime-green and dirty, butter-colored walls is ominous. To the left, a hand-painted sign that hangs a bit wonky reads, "No Curssing [sic]." It's the only glimmer of any sort of life in this place. A Naugahyde couch and three metal folding chairs are scattered about. A large barred window opens onto a dark and rising moon. There's something in this scene that seems inevitably tragic.

But Dr. Smith (Rachel Hemphill) has just come from New York to work as the first black psychiatrist at this hospital. She represents a new kind of hope. She got the job because of what Dr. Martin Luther King is doing, or so says Junior (Kelvin Hamilton), the black orderly helping her get acclimated. Of course, in most every way, his is the kind of help she can do without.

"It's impolite to stare," she tells him when he can't peel his eyes off her legs. He offers her a "Scorn sucker" and shows interest in taking her out. He talks about his last girlfriend, bragging he didn't hurt her when she made him mad. A regular prince.

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All this Dr. Smith ignores. She's full of northern hope and eagerness for her new job. It takes no time, though, for head doctor Henry Shelton (Stuart Purdy) to put her in her place. She discovers she will be looking after the black patients only. And that there are a total of three, all men.

Still, Dr. Smith puts on a brave face. She's ready to meet her patients, although Dr. Shelton asks an odd question first: What does she know about voodoo?

His foreboding inquiry concerns the patient who's most in trouble. Rufus, the town shaman, is in the mental hospital awaiting a murder trial. A woman was killed on his property, and when the white lawman went to investigate, he disappeared, too. Of course, Rufus told him not to go looking for the dead woman; he said it was dangerous. But white men don't listen to men such as Rufus. Or maybe they're scared. Rufus can talk to the gods. And as Rufus says, "Anytime you got the power to talk to the gods, white people get scared."

Rufus, as played by Je'Caryous Johnson, is a wide-eyed, bird-thin man who spreads his arms wide in joyous incantatory movements as he summons mystical powers. He beats his drum, transfixed, not so much to save himself as to find the truth. Like any shaman, he's not afraid of death, which he sees a a chance to meet the "ancestors," but he enjoys discovering the mysteries of the night.

He predicts the future: Martin Luther King will die in Memphis. He sees King with wings on his back. He tells the good doctor all about her past. It turns out that altruism isn't all that has guided the doctor's decision to come down to Sweetwater, Texas, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, with only a bunch of racist rednecks for companionship. She, too, has her dark and disturbing past.

But the doctor struggles to save Rufus. She believes he's innocent. She also believes the other two black men in her charge, Monkey Man (Kirk Dautrive) and Fred (Edward Spinks), don't need to be locked up either. She points out that they don't appear to be a danger to themselves or others. In fact it's only Junior, the orderly, who's scary.

Besides his constant staring, he grabs Dr. Smith once, kissing her hard before she can pull away. And there is the disturbing way he describes women.

This strangeness in the institution is deeply complicated by the dark racism of the times. The pink-faced, big-bellied sheriff (Darrell Murphy) -- he looks like he stepped out of Smokey and the Bandit -- would just as soon kill a black prisoner with his fists as get him to trial. When the doctor works a way for Rufus to go back to his property and use his shaman drums to discover who killed the woman and the lawman, the sheriff takes that opportunity to beat Rufus badly.

It's an old, sad tale heard many times, though few playwrights have situated stories of racism in such complicated surroundings. Trapped in a double-bind system, it is likely that black mental patients suffered tremendously. Had The Drums of Sweetwater focused more exclusively on this conflict, the play would probably have been more successful. As it is, the script tries to cover too much ground. It attempts to examine everything from the mission of Martin Luther King to the troubling psychological effects of the Vietnam War on ex-soldiers. Thus, for all its high drama, the ending is strangely ineffectual.

Still, director Sterling Vappie does a good job of pumping energy into his lively actors. Hamilton's Junior is as sleazy and scary as they come. And Dautrive's Monkey Man, whose hair flies like a dark cloud around his confused mind, is utterly convincing as the vet who comes home with a "monkey on his back." Spinks's sweet Fred, who wants only to sing his song, demonstrates the terrible injustices of a racist mental-hospital system. Meanwhile, Johnson's Rufus stands comfortably at center stage, eyes blazing, full of righteous indignation.

The Drums of Sweetwater runs through May 23 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street. (713)520-0055. $14-$19.

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