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San Francisco by Richard Connema

American Conservatory Theatre Presents World Premier of S.M. Shephard-Massat's poetic drama Levee James

Also see Richard's review of Cavalia

The American Conservatory Theatre continues its 2003-2004 season by presenting the world premiere of S.M. Shephard-Massat's Levee James, a poetic and moving story of three African Americans living with racially motivated violence in the deep south of the 1920s. The two hour one intermission drama features Broadway and film actress Rosalyn Coleman (Seven Guitars and The Piano Lesson on Broadway and Off Broadway in Whose Family Values) and two ACT core members, Steven Anthony Jones (ACT's The Dazzle, Waiting for Godot, the annual Scrooge in Christmas Carol) and Gregory Wallace ( ACT 's A Dolls House, Waiting for Godot, The Three Sisters).

S.M. Shephard-Massat is a new and rising African American playwright who will be compared to August Wilson on writing about the "black experience." However, where Mr. Wilson's plays are more natural and easy to follow, Ms. Massat's writing is more ethereal and the characters in her plays speak lines that are very poetic and metaphorical.

Levee JamesLevee James is set in 1923 in rural Georgia where blacks are supposed to know "their place" in the white man's world. Widower Wesley Staton (Steven Anthony Jones) is the prosperous owner of farm; he is raising two daughters is one proud man. He is his own man and he caters to no one. The arrogant and independent Wesley has worked like a "mule" all of his life to make the farm prosperous, and his white neighbor (who is never seen) is very jealous of that fact. Wesley's sister-in-law Lily (Rosalyn Coleman) worked as a maid for a white family in Atlanta and now returns to visit her deceased sister's husband. She is a smart, spirited woman who is still confused as to what she wants to be: a maid, a wife or a mother. Apparently, she and Wesley had a moment of passion during an earlier time and that infatuation is again ignited.

Wesley and Lily find comfort in each other while there is racial violence going on all about them. The poor white community is jealous of the black man owning a nice piece of property. There is random cruelty against the blacks and lynchings are commonplace. In one scene, Lily recites a long list of blacks who have been lynched.

Levee James takes a while to get its engine going since the first thirty minutes is a kitchen conversation between Wesley and Lily about times gone by. There is very little action and it is unclear just where this play is going. The danger of violence against them is not clear enough to create a dramatic tension. Also, early on, the actors do not seem to have mastered the colloquial language of the southern blacks in the 1920s . Their voices go out to the wings of the stage when not talking in front of the audience.

Levee's tale is simply a portrait of two person falling headlong in love, which is unusual in most "African American experience plays." The violence stays in the background until it comes to a head in the second act.

The three actors are brilliant in their characterizations. Rosalyn Coleman gives a charismatic performance once the play starts moving. Her speech on the life of a maid in Atlanta is wonderful and her determination to get Wesley to move north is eloquent. Steven Anthony Jones gives a compelling performance as the strong mind independent man who will not cater to anyone. He gives a wonderful speech about his father Levee James who was killed on a levee while working to save the town from raging flood waters. Jones also gives a dynamic final speech, even though the playwright's metaphors and similes are hard to understand. Though Jones' acting is superb, it almost becomes incomprehensible as to what he is saying.

Gregory Wallace as the hopeful friend Fitzhugh Martin is delightful in the role. Once he enters the stage in the first act, the play suddenly becomes alive. His take on what he wants to do in the future is a highlight of the play. Fitzhugh is the only black in town who owns an automobile, and this does not sit well with the poor whites and becomes a catalyst for violence.

Scenic designer Loy Arcenas has devised a detailed, eye-catching farmhouse set that dramatizes the predicament of the characters. This is a broad, wooden plank house with tall kitchen walls and a freestanding screen door. The comfortable home contains all of the amenities one would have seen in a "middle class white" household in the 1920s. There is also an ominous tree in the background stage left that is a symbolic reference to a tree where blacks were lynched. Director Israel Hicks and playwright put up a barren tree in the background suggesting the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit." Israel Hicks' direction is taut, especially in the second act.

Levee James still looks like a play in development, with the second act being the stronger of the two. The main problem with the play is that there are too many speeches and too little conversation between Wesley and Lily, especially in the first act. The play looks promising with these sorted out.

Levee James is currently playing at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St, San Francisco through March 14th. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. Their next production is William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life which opens on March 25th.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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