- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

With productions of “Animal Farm” and “The Director: The Third Act of Elia Kazan” currently going on around town, Washington-area theaters have been painting the town red. Add Baltimore’s Center Stage to the list of comrades, with playwright Naomi Wallace’s “Things of Dry Hours,” a poetic, romantic and politically explosive look at the role of Southern blacks in the American communist movement of the 1930s.

Turns out Birmingham, Ala., in 1932 was not so far removed from Red Square, with black men and women railing against the Tennessee Coal and Iron conglomerate and the union-busting efforts of U.S. corporations. The communists made racial justice a priority in America, and black party members combined religion and radical fervor in what was known as a working-class version of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Of course, everything was conducted in secret, since black party members were hounded by both the Klan and union henchmen.

Until the civil rights movement of the 1950s, the American Communist Party was one of few national organizations not only fighting for racial equality, but also one of the rare groups with integrated meetings. Miss Wallace was influenced by professor Robin D.G. Kelley’s book “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression,” and while this era in our nation’s past is little-known and no doubt fascinating, “Things of Dry Hours” often contains the dry, pedantic air of a lecture.

Swollen with speeches about the history of communism both here and abroad, the play is so wordy that it makes “Das Kapital” seem like a text message. The direction by Kwame Kwei-Armah reinforces the ranting tone, with the actors alternately twirling or traipsing back and forth along the exaggerated thrust of Riccardo Hernandez’s set.

What Miss Wallace has in her favor is language as lush and florid as Alabama in high summer. She layers the play in evocative language that is almost biblical in its intricate structure and rapturous style, yet touches of matter-of-fact humor are mixed in with the heat. The most beautiful passages are spouted by Tice Hogan (Roger Robinson), a loquacious and watchful black man with a Bible in one hand and a communist manifesto in the other. He is the play’s narrator and guide, leading us into the action and stepping out from time to make fanciful commentary.

Tice tells us the events of the play are tied into a knock on the door, an examination into the nature of apples, and what it means to be a good friend. These three elements weave in and out of the story of what happens to Tice and his fiercely guarded daughter Cali (Erika LaVonn) when a white stranger named Corbin Teel (Steven Cole Hughes) barges into their house and demands sanctuary.

Corbin says he’s on the lam from killing a mill boss in the name of the cause — but he may not be what he seems. Thus begins a seesawing cat-and-mouse game between Tice and Corbin. The balance tips when Tice teaches the illiterate Corbin to read, but then the white man unsettles things with his insistent, greedy attempts to seduce Cali.

“Dry Hours” is, on the surface, a mano-a-mano struggle for supremacy between Tice and Corbin, but it is the feminine presence that gives the play sizzle. The scenes between the hard-minded and arrogant Cali and the raw Corbin burn with unlikely, aching desire. She plays dangerous variations on childhood games with Corbin, teasing him with her flesh, long gone untouched, and her daunting strength. Miss LaVonn is such an accomplished actress that she flicks effortlessly between the sexual and the familial, and her scenes with her father exude a tender, bantering camaraderie.

Mr. Robinson skillfully portrays the storming patriarch Tice Hogan, his brooding strength playing off the deceptive malleability of Mr. Hughes’ Corbin Teel. Tice carries the mantle of “dirty red” with pride, and he and the other black members of the party see communism as a form of magic — a way to break from the shackles of slavery and create a different community where race is irrelevant and the worker reigns supreme. Yet, idealism and magical thinking ultimately fail to triumph over the cruelties ingrained in human nature.


WHAT: “Things of Dry Hours” by Naomi Wallace

WHERE: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 3.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/332-0033

WEB SITE: www.centerstage.org


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