It is perhaps impossible to overstate the effects of slavery on contemporary American culture. Though the institution officially ended over a hundred years ago, Jim Crow laws kept many African-Americans under the collective thumb of an often inhumane white authority well into the 20th century. And still, with the civil rights movement long behind us, Americans of every color are dealing with the profound historical aftershocks from 400 years of institutionalized slavery.
Marcia Leslie's script, The Trial of One Short-sighted Black Woman vs Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae, playing at the Ensemble Theatre, is an exploration of the way that institution and its history shape and frame the identities of African-Americans living today. This subject is enormous, and it requires a steely constitution to take it on, given the discomfort that many citizens, both black and white, feel about examining this difficult piece of our culture. However, admirable though this project may be, the play Leslie created -- in her effort to callinto question our collective desire to ignore, denigrate and even deny the current cultural effects of slavery -- is woefully flawed. Many of the problems lie in the central conceit around which the drama is built.
The entire play is constructed as a trial. The lights never go down; only the preshow music changes. Jazzy, lightweight tunes give way to an a cappella chant. Melancholy female voices urgently repeat, "I am human" over and over. A bailiff walks on stage to give the preshow speech about turning off pagers, phones and so on. Then the lawyers walk down the aisle through the audience. At center stage they tell us, "We are about to embark on a dialogue that concerns images." These images, we learn, are of African-Americans, the kind that have been perpetuated through films and television: the mammies, the salacious concubines, the loopy slave girls. The audience is invited to participate as jury in this dialogue and is even instructed to stand for the arrival of the judge (Mozelle Moses-Felder).
Defendants follow. Mammy Louise (Bobbi Yarbrough-Session) and Safreeta Mae (Shundra Williams), two slaves who have somehow found their way into the 1990s, are dressed in 19th-century slave attire, the kind we've seen in all the movies. Mammy's hair is wrapped up in a rag, and her enormous belly is draped with a clean, white apron. In the pocket is a worn Bible. The beautiful Safreeta Mae, whose clothes fall off her lovely shoulders, looks like the strumpet she's accused of being.
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At the prosecutor's table sits the shortsighted black woman, Victoria (Norelia Reed), a contemporary middle-class professional dressed in standard corporate wear: suit, heels, smart pocketbook. She wants most of all to become an executive, a mover and shaker in big business. And she's come to court blaming Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae for her inability to rise up the corporate ladder.
Weirdly enough, Victoria accuses them rather than the history, literature and films that created these images of the happy mammy and the hot-to-trot slave girl. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae defend themselves by revealing the rather obvious truth that their lives were nothing like the lies that the movies have told. Safreeta Mae did not, it turns out, go willingly into her master's bed. And Mammy Louise didn't love her white charges more than she loved her own children. In truth, she despised them.
In fact all the "revelations" in this trial turn out to be so self-evident that the entire script begins to sound like nothing more than a long-winded, polemical, old-news history lesson. The dramatic potential of Leslie's argument is reduced by her characters' simply soapboxing about history, stereotypes and their impacts on black Americans today.
The character of Victoria, who's never read any black writer except Terry McMillan (hasn't there been enough McMillan bashing?) seems sophomoric and cruel. She is nothing more than another black stereotype: the upper middle-class woman who's made it and promptly forgotten her "roots."
Leslie wants her audience to embrace the past, to realize that "one must know who one has been in order to understand who one is today." But a two-hour scolding hardly seems the best way to achieve this goal.
For all the haranguing, there are some wonderful theatrical moments. When Yarbrough-Session's Mammy finally is let out from behind the defense table to take the witness stand in the second act, she delivers a speech that her audience won't soon forget. She explains the difference between the mammy of Gone with the Wind and her own existence. It's a speech of tragic proportions made even better with Yarbrough-Session's generous delivery -- she's full of rage and fire and so much heart that she leaves her audience in stunned silence, goose-bumped, tearful and grateful.
Strong, too, is the ending. In a long and sadly unending chant, all the slave ships are remembered, including the ironically named Jesus and Mercy.
The set also merits mention. The judge sits high on a large bench that spreads the width of the stage and is shaped like the slave ships that started this tragedy. In the end, the image is quite effective.
Most Americans know that slaves weren't happy and that many of the images of slaves and black Americans -- perpetuated on film and television, in literature and advertisements -- are ridiculous stereotypes. Of course, those images still affect our lives on a daily basis. A play that explores the nuances of this sad fact could be very interesting indeed.
The Trial of One Short-sighted Black Woman vs Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae plays through March 7 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, (713)520-0055. $14-$19.
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