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Texas in Paris

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lillias White and Scott Wakefield.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Culture clashes rarely get more unusual than they do in Texas in Paris, which just opened at the York Theatre at St. Peter's. True, this based-on-real-life play with music considers what happened when two Texans, cowboy John Burrus and soul-singing domestic Osceola Mays, collaborated on a series of concerts in Paris (er, France) in the late 1980s, and there's more a little fish-out-of-water quality to the concept as it is. But of more interest to conceiver-librettist Alan Govenar, who wove together this quietly charming little show, is just how far apart—and deceptively close—these two people from the same American state could be.

Because both grew up in the South during a turbulent period of American race relations (they're both in their 60s), they have baked-in notions of black and white that the Civil Rights movement alone could not easily correct. This doesn't mean that either is prejudiced—merely that they're not from groups that normally mixed. John (played by Scott Wakefield) lived his life largely alone, his experience with African-Americans defined by somewhat mysterious partners in his wrangling pursuits; Osceola (Lillias White), the daughter of a sharecropper, has considerably less pleasant memories. And these two need to share a stage—and a camaraderie—in a place that couldn't be more removed from the only way of life they've ever known?

Govenar, who's constructed the show from recordings of the actual concerts and snippets of both his own writings and photographs, and Mays's rustic poetry, sees this as a mutedly historic coming-together tale, and treats it with both the appropriate gravity and levity. Both Govenar and his director, Akin Babatund√©, cleanly depict how the pair's awkwardness gradually gives way to trust, respect, and then a sort of friendship—if an uneasy one that can probably not ever be traditionally "warm." And by showing how Osceola blooms in Paris while John shrinks, they underscore at once the immense power that change can have on the human psyche and why it often carries such a high cost.

That's as far as Texas in Paris goes and as deep as it gets; Govenar's aims are modest, though he has no trouble reaching them. If his book is at times a bit too on-the-nose, and if John is perhaps too much of a cipher compared to the more flamboyant and well-defined Osceola, it's successful on its own limited terms, and never boring even if it's also never innovative. The same is true of the production, which with a simple open-space set by James Morgan and mildly evocative projections by Jason Johnson-Spinos similarly wants to inspire without interfering. The program note credits Amy Jones with "music supervision" and arrangements that give the collection of cowboy crooning, spirituals, and hymns their own savor and narrative, even though there are only two singers and a limited range of instruments (Wakefield's guitar, banjo, and harmonica are about it)—another small but notable victory.

Wakefield and White are comfortably matched, and have a rugged chemistry that smoothly drives the gentle evening. White's spin is mostly one of tortured brashness—you've seen it from her before, though it works just fine here—that helps anchor Osceola as a survivor of life as well as social tumult. But Wakefield might be even more compelling, as he effects a strong disconnect between his guarded personality and the hard-skinned confidence of his singing. He leaves you feeling that John is a man who, despite all evidence to the contrary, is never more at home than when he's elevating his voice in song.

That's perhaps the most affecting part of Texas in Paris: how Osceola and John are united by their shared reverence for God. Though not every number refers to Him, most of them do, and you see how their faith guides them to be better people alone and, eventually, together. When they deliver numbers as spirit-stirring as "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" or "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," you feel you're absorbing all they've learned about life over decades of upheaval that can probably never come again. John and Osceola might be about as different as two people can be, but through his work Govenar poignantly proves that the qualities they have in common are far more powerful—and transformative—than their differences.

Texas in Paris
Through March 1
York Theatre Company, Saint Peters Church at 619 Lexington Avenue corner of 54th Street
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