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BWW Reviews: Theatre Works Explores Why WE LIVE HERE

I like the title of Harold Ellis Clark's WE LIVE HERE, winner of the NewWorks@TheWorks playwriting competition hosted by Playhouse on the Square and now playing at Theatre Works. If you emphasize the word WE, it offers two different interpretations: (1) It could refer to the racist white characters in the play, who don't relish the idea of ceding part of their predominately white neighborhood in Metarie to the black characters who have had the questionable luck of winning a post-Hurricane Katrina lottery; or (2) it could refer to the black characters themselves, who defiantly (and rightly) have planted their feet on new, if rocky, turf. In fact, any of the three words in the title could be emphasized and, consequently, offer a new facet inviting a different interpretation.

In point of fact, WE LIVE HERE is a variation on a theme initially raised in Lorraine Hansberry's 1950's "Great Grand Daddy" of such plays, RAISIN IN THE SUN. Despite the artistry of that play and its astute casting (it's sad that the great Claudia McNeil's "Mama," so powerful and iconic in the film version, wasn't even Oscar-nominated), one would hope that its "social relevance" would now seem no longer as potent; alas, as the past year's numerous racial disturbances (is there anyone who will ever hear the words "Ferguson, Missouri" and not give a sad shake of the head?) have shown, this oft-resurrected theme still has its lessons to teach.

I have mixed feelings about theatre offerings that are redolent with the earnestness of a classroom lesson. I never know whether such fare will yield a powerful theatrical experience or wag its righteous finger in a "you'd better learn from this" social studies lecture. The good news here is that the former holds sway. Not only is Mr. Ellis' writing both perceptive and timely, but the intuitive direction of John Maness (long a strong local presence both on- and behind- stage in such intimate productions) and the excellent performances (particularly by Jerry Rogers and Claire Kolheim as the displaced couple) insure a thought-provoking, dynamic experience.

The play opens with dramatic fireworks, as the new black neighbors have detained a young man (Gabriel Corry) who has broken an upstairs window and, evidently, left defamatory evidence on the lawn. The vocal pyrotechnics here are startling, and the actors have to perform on all cylinders. Then, in short order, there are appearances by a conscientious, challenged police officer (nicely and firmly played by Michael Corry) and, subsequently, the grandparents of the youthful miscreant, played by the always welcome Karin Barile and Michael J. Vails, trying with little initial success to make amends for their wayward grandson.

Ms. Barile's sympathetic and kind "Barbara" doesn't take long to win over Ms. Kolheim's sensible and wary (and very pregnant) "Francine." The women bond relatively quickly. The men, on the other hand, require a little more time. While Mr. Vails' "Richard" seems unaware of his prejudices, he is basically a good man trying to do the right thing, and Vails' sweetly oblivious characterization is laced with comic grace notes. J. Jerome Rogers' mistrusting, distrustful "Calvin," on the other hand, is probably the adult character in most need of change. Both his present and past experiences create a distance between him and those around him; he even welcomes the intervention of the media-savvy "Reverend H. Thomas Todd" (an entertaining Curtis C.), who sees the incident as a means of staging a publicity-ripe protest. This, in turn, causes the spousal relationship with "Francine" to bristle.

Mr. Clark has written a fairly entertaining piece (it isn't without humor, despite the seriousness of the proceedings). I particularly like the way that the role of the policeman unfolds (there's a real surprise toward the end of the play). In light of recent, racially charged events involving young victims and the police, it's refreshing to see a positive spin on such a character. I also like the interactions in the one-on-one scenes that make us see these characters as "real people" (even the "Reverend," in his final scene, reveals a parental insight that saves him from being a stock character). If I found any opportunity missed, it might involve the unrepentant youngster who has to be prodded into apologies. (I would have liked to see a healing scene between him and the imposing "Calvin.") Yet, as an alternative to the requisite holiday fare that stakes out the Memphis stages with holly during December, WE LIVE HERE is a brisk reminder that "we ALL live here" - and need to make the best of it. In a way, it's sad that plays like this still must be written to address racial issues; but it's comforting that writers like Mr. Clark and a company of actors such as these have the talent to bring them to light. The sparse scenic design is by Phillip Hughen; the original music, by Zachary Badreddine. Through January 25.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)