Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Since Abby is black (and Californian) and Opal Anne is white (and a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy) and the trial is scheduled to take place in Shelby County, Tennessee, the balance of power is tilted solidly against her. Fortunately for Abby (Jeunée Simon), she has a wolverine for an attorney, a publicity-mad woman named Rochelle (Stacy Ross), who believes there are ways outside the court to win inside the court. Abby also benefits from the assistance of Savannah (Chelsea Bearce), Rochelle's associate, whose law license has been suspended after she was arrested for dancing with another woman.
Together, the three women plot a strategy, while each tries to discern the real motivations and actual truths of the other two. But once Opal Anne (Susan Jackson) appears at the end of act one, the motivations and power plays take on very different shadings, and it's no longer just Abby who's on trial. With a KKK rally going on outside (excellent sound design by Gregory Scharpen) and Opal Anne spouting confederate trigger phrases"heritage," "a traditionalist movement," "War of Northern Aggression," "field hands," (instead of "slaves")it's the idea (and ideals) of America being judged.
Central Works is to be lauded for their mission of staging only new plays, giving playwrights a much needed forum in which to create their art. Despite a too-tidy, somewhat head-scratching ending, playwright Patricia Milton has done excellent work here, peppering her script with dozens of wonderful lines that elicited roars of laughter from the audience at the performance I attended. When Abby is asked "You don't have the Klan in California?," she replies, "We have the LAPD." Rochelle's alcoholic law partner (never seen on stage) was reported to have been "shoving quarters into the condom machine and wondering why it won't play 'Jolene'." Her characters are rich and complex, and you never stop trying to discern the shifting alliances and strategies the characters adopt to achieve their goals.
Director Gary Graves has elicited absolutely marvelous performances from his cast. Stacy Ross, who was brilliant in two shows that made my Top 10 of 2017 (Shakespeare in Love and Leni), is equally spectacular in this role, exhibiting power, duplicity, passion and fragilityin just the right proportions. It's an absolute delight to observe her work in such an intimate setting. For that matter, the other three actors also shine in the tiny space that is the theater at Berkeley City Club, on its own worth a visit for the gorgeous Julia Morgan architecture.
Jeunée Simon has eyes that will tear a hole in your heart, and expresses both sensitivity and sassalong with a fierce intelligence that comes pouring out of her character when she is challenged by those around her. Chelsea Bearce also brings a ferocity to her role as a woman wrongly detoured from her career path and forced into a job that doesn't come close to matching her talents, in a way mirroring the untapped potential slavery engendered. As Opal Anne, Susan Jackson is wonderfully haughty and blind to her bigotry in a way that makes us feel both fondness and pity for her.
The major blot on this production is the set "design." No scenic designer is listed in the program, which is clearly evident. The setostensibly a conference room of a two-partner law firmconsists of a plastic folding banquet table (of the sort one might find in a junior high school cafeteria), set with four black metal folding chairs.
Bamboozled will take you on a fascinating journey, exploring the stains history has left on us all, and the lengths some will go to hide those stains, and others to expose and scrub them away.
Bamboozled, through March 18, 2018, at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley CA. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. Tickets range from $30-$35, with a sliding scale of $15-$35 available at the door. Tickets are available online at www.centralworks.org, or by calling 510-558-1381.