- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

Playwright Daniel Du Plantis sets "Gris Gris" in 1869 New Orleans, but in many ways the tale is thoroughly modern.

It tells of a woman who must choose between her professional life and personal happiness, of a mother who tries to prepare her daughter for the world, of a woman who comes to accept her inescapable responsibilities.

Presented by the African Continuum Theatre Company at the Source Theatre, "Gris Gris" offers a look at real-life voodoo queen Marie Laveau and her legacy.

Old Marie Laveau (Jewell Robinson) is the queen of the voodoos, a rare position of power for a black woman, which she has enjoyed for a long time. She inspires fear in the young Roman Catholic priest; suspicion in the new police chief; respect from the locals, who look down as she walks by with her head held high; and hope in the death-row prisoners she prays with and feeds.

Some of her followers say she has enjoyed the position too long, and they want her daughter, Young Marie (Kamilah Forbes), to step up and replace the 69-year-old queen.

Young Marie has plans of her own — and a mixture of contempt and reverence for voodoo. To Young Marie, whose mother is the wizard behind the curtain, voodoo is just so much smoke and mirrors. But she's also aware of the power that comes with being Marie Laveau, voodoo queen — even if it comes not from communing with the spirits or channeling some unseen force but from getting the town's domestic help to gossip about their well-to-do employers.

"I'm going to start doing what's right for me," Young Marie says, trying to duck her birthright. She and her wealthy, white lover, Gerald (Jon Cohn), decide to go away together, though they never get any farther than the hotel where they have been meeting.

Young Marie returns home after learning that her mother is very sick. By this time, though, she has got competition to succeed her mother, as Madame Claude (Willette Thompson) lays claim to be the next voodoo queen.

Old Marie questions her daughter's voodoo powers and seems skeptical of her ability to take over for her — but it's just part of the give-and-take, the struggle between a steely woman and her headstrong child.

Despite her reluctance, Young Marie comes to embrace her fate as voodoo queen-to-be, even if it means she cannot be with Gerald.

The ever-faithful Laveau assistant Phillipe (KenYatta Rogers) tells Gerald that the queen has no king, only subjects. Old Marie, she who sleeps with snakes and never loved but one man, encourages her daughter to go with Gerald, if all she wants from life is a husband and family.

The performances in "Gris Gris" are first-rate. Miss Robinson's Old Marie is a supreme con artist who, unlike her daughter, doesn't seem the least bit bothered by it. At turns ladylike and bawdy, worried about her daughter and defiant about losing her place, Old Marie Laveau is particularly well drawn.

Miss Forbes' Young Marie is like a spoiled, protected child who is just realizing the burden she has to bear. She knows she has her voodoo queen mother to thank for having it better than most, but with that comes some constraints worse than being a black woman in the Deep South just years after the Civil War.

As Madame Claude, Miss Thompson adds a spicy hilarity. If Old Marie is regal and dignified as the queen who makes a good living with the secrets of black magic, Madame Claude is a carny barker hoping to turn a profit by hawking its wares: amulets, dolls and a chance to touch a handmade gris gris god — a talisman that can bring fortune or misfortune to others.

Miss Thompson has got some of the funniest lines, some of which she improvises as she involves the audience in her performance. Unfortunately, Madame Claude gets a little too outlandish; her hiding in the bushes outside Marie Laveau's house looks like an effort just to get her onstage when there isn't much for her to do.

The sure-handed direction of Jennifer L. Nelson keep everything moving along in "Gris Gris," but the scenes that try to elaborate on Old Marie's belief system feel undercooked.

At the outset of the play, she is dispelling some myths about her voodoo — myths that she is happy to foster through planted items in the local paper (after all, it's good for business). Yet when a young priest comes by to demand that her followers return a statue of St. George, she shows a glimmer of deeply held beliefs that are neither clearly explained nor in keeping with the portrait of a savvy businesswoman who understands her voodoo is more marketing than magic.

When she visits the condemned Antoine (Michael Glenn), Old Marie says she found faith through darkness. But at what point the voodoo stops being a racket and becomes a genuine force is hard to tell.

Still, the strong performances in "Gris Gris" are enough to make you forget that this gumbo is cold in some spots.{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Gris Gris"WHERE: Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NWWHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 3, 2 p.m. Feb. 4 and Feb. 11, and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Feb. 11TICKETS: $20 to $25PHONE: 202/529-5763 or www.onwashington.com/groups-actco

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