"'I'm glad that Jew baby you put in me died.' That was the last time I saw the woman I loved, the woman I became a goy for." Unfortunately, that is a real line of dialogue from John Henry Redwood's new play, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, which opened last night at Primary Stages. Even more unfortunately, it is supposed to be serious.
Spoken by Yaveni Aaronsohn, a Jewish man studying the black Cheeks family in Halifax, North Carolina in 1949, the line is the climax of a lengthy speech in the middle of the second act, when Aaronsohn is relating to Mattie Cheeks (Elizabeth Van Dyke) and her daughter (Adrienne Carter) the sting of racism he too has felt.
That the actor playing Aaronsohn, Jack Aaron, is able to deliver the line so earnestly is to his credit - though perhaps his most embarrassing, it is far from unique in the play. Most of Aaronsohn's dialogue throughout is preachy, and when it's not, it is difficult to accept as something someone in Aaronsohn's place might actually say. By the time you get to one of Aaronsohn's final lines, "Don't forget the pork chops," however, you have long ceased to take anything that comes out of his mouth seriously.
However, the play is primarily about Mattie and her attempts to hold her family together in the face of considerable adversity, and that requires a strong relationship to be established between the members of the Cheeks family. In that way, Redwood succeeds; you believe in their love for each other, for God, and their belief that the choices they are making are right, even if you may not agree with those choices. Van Dyke, Carter, Marcus Naylor as the father, and Charis M. Wilson as the youngest daughter, almost always feel like a real family. When that relationship is allowed to carry the play (as it most often is), the play is at its strongest. Each of the actors is strong enough to successfully convey the emotions required by the script.
The play is always less interesting when the focus is even slightly removed from the main family unit. Perhaps the most egregious and damaging example is at the end of the first act. The play grinds to a screeching halt so Mattie can tell her daughters the story of her Aunt Cora (Rayme Cornell), who appears alone in one corner of the stage to enact the tale Mattie recalls. This device was never used before and is not used again after, and since Aunt Cora is mainly a peripheral character (though still important to the action in a few key places), the scene puts a damper on the mother-daughter relationship the vital scene immediately preceding tried so hard to establish.
Neither the actors nor Israel Hick's direction can be blamed for this jarring moment, they usually serve the material well (and, in the case of Van Dyke and Cornell, frequently quite a bit more). But when the script thrusts that situation, or any of the predictable story twists, or a major character revelation that is intended to be dramatic but is instead laughable, there is only so much even the most talented director or actors can do to stop it.
It is quite clear that John Henry Redwood feels deeply for the plight of anyone who is exposed to the horrors of racism, and his attempt to draw parallels between the way Jews and blacks have experienced it in the United States is admirable, and he occasionally succeeds. It is a shame, though, that he did not choose to treat each of the characters in his play with equal dramatic weight to truly drive the point home. Because of this, and because of the problems with the particular situations he has chosen to write about, though a frequently interesting attempt, Redwood only gets No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs about half right.