Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Things of Dry Hours
There is a great trove of history here, deeply relevant as the "Black Lives Matter" campaign continues to remind us of the persistence of racially charged inequities in the administration of justice, hideous incarceration rates among communities of color, stubborn unemployment rates for African American men, and an intransigent achievement gap in our schools. Unfortunately, Wallace's play fails to make a coherent statement based on that history. It contains particular scenes of great power, especially given muscular performances by the three member cast and atmospheric direction by Wendy Knox, but the scenes are not knitted together by any narrative logic. Even the play's title, a line from Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "Kitchenette Building" written in 2004, bears no meaning absent the poem, which came long after the play's action. Moreover, the characters' voices are inconsistent, at times speaking in the colloquialism of their day, at other times speaking with poetic flourishes that feel like the voice of the playwright, but not of her characters.
Things of Dry Hours is set in 1932 and takes place on a single set, the front room of a rough-hewn home in Birmingham, owned by the church, but occupied by African-American Tice Hogan and his daughter Cali. Tice is a laid-off steel worker who has embraced the Communist Party, but brings to it his own wealth of influences, including W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and the Holy Bible. At a time when owning books at all was a great luxury, Tice prides himself on owning two books: a bible and The Communist Manifesto. Cali appears to be in her 30s, the widowed survivor of a loveless marriage. She earns money taking in laundry from rich white families who live over the mountain. She entertains herself collecting the shoes left behind in the tangles of laundry, projecting on each shoe the life led by its former wearer, and places the shoes over her hands as puppets that can engage in conversation not available to Cali in the tightly drawn circle of her life.
Tice and Cali are clearly devoted to one another, their father-daughter bound having the form of a deep friendship. Their world is cracked open by the dark-of-night arrival of Corbin Teel, a white steel worker on the run after attacking, perhaps fatally, his foreman. Corbin claims that he was told that Tice would hide him, as a Party member devoted to protect workers from the wrath of management. Tice denies involvement in the Party, and Cali wants to eject Corbin outright, until Corbin uses his white-ness and the Hogans' black-ness to blackmail them into granting him shelter.
From this juncture, Things of Dry Hours turns around two equally unlikely premises: Tice's resolve to build on Corbin's hard-luck past to bring him into the fold of the Party by teaching him the tenants of Communismafter all, the party badly needs more white membersand Corbin's campaign to seduce Cali, which she stalwartly resists, though flirts with the possibility. Several very intense scenes between the two, including a role reversal that draws on Cali's dramatic imagination (and involves her shoe-puppets), portray powerful moments, but the on and off nature of their response to one another follows no narrative arc, and feels more like a contrivance for playwright Wallace to make various points. Tice offers abstract prologue and epilogue speeches that contribute to the sense of mystery, but do little to clarify. A labored metaphor involving apples, and a scene of flying bedsheets likewise do little to illuminate the turmoil within the Hogan cabin.
Included in the gathering of polemics on race and class is a lesson given by Tice on the nature of race, its relatively recent construct as a rationale for the subjugation of one group by another, citing historic times when slave status was based not on race but on level of education and sophistication. Tied to this is a discourse on white privilege and the divide it places between Corbin and the two Hogans, which Corbin takes stark measures to deny. All of this is well stated, well acted, and utterly at odds with dramatic coherence. When the conclusion comes, it seems to have been the ordained outcome, unrelated to the high level dialogues and baring of feelings that were spooled out between beginning and end.
What is not lost are terrific performances by Hope Cervantes as Cali smart, tart, and possessed of a rich inner life that enables her to endure the brutal reality; Sam Bardwell as Corbin, equally able to draw on his primitive nature to appear as a nave seeker of truth or a spineless purveyor of evil; and Warren C. Bowles as the pious Tice, who uses his beliefs in the Party and in scripture as two wings to keep himself morally above the desperate times wrought by Jim Crow depression Alabama. It should be noted that Bowles stepped into the part only days before opening, replacing Jim Craven who withdraw due to a health issue. Bowles was still on book opening night, but enacted the virtuous, self-deluded Tice with deep conviction. All three of these accomplished actors made us believe in the truth of these people, even as we questioned their speech and their actions.
Wendy Knox's direction creates an atmosphere of mystery, fitting well with the suspension of disbelief called for by the text. She creates a world for the Hogans somewhere between reality and dream. If only the play itself moved as adroitly between these realms. Set, costume, and lighting design all serve the needs of the play well, while Dan Dukich's sound design provides a rich texture with omnipresent birdsongs as backdrop, and old timey southern labor songs between scenes.
Frank Theatre provides valuable resource guides for its productions. In this case, background information regarding the Communist Party of Alabama and conditions among steelworkers and sharecroppers during the depression offer great insights to understanding the play. Thanks to these efforts, I feel enriched with background that can easily be applied to present day problems. Unfortunately, Things of Dry Hours itself does little to contribute to that deepened understanding. It can be recommended only for the grace and conviction of its performances.
Frank Theatres production of Things of Dry Hours continues through October 4, 2015, at The Playwrights Center, 2301 E. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets $25.00, $22 for seniors and students with IDs. For tickets call 6`2-724-3760 or go to www.franktheatre.org.
Writer: Naomi Wallace; Director: Wendy Knox; Scenery: John Bueche; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Designer: Mike Wangen Sound Designer: Dan Dukich; Properties: Jenny Moeller; Stage Manager: Lisa Smith; Dramaturg: Steve Matuszak
Cast: Sam Bardwell (Corbin Teel), Warren C. Bowles (Tice Hogan), Hope Cervantes (Cali Hogan)