DAY OF ABSENCE and ALMOST NOTHING at the Lorraine Hansberry

The new location of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre just off Union Square.

DAY OF ABSENCE and ALMOST NOTHING; Two one-act plays by Douglas Turner Ward and Marcos Barbosa (translated by Mark O’Thomas) both directed by Steven Anthony Jones. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 450 Post St., San Francisco, CA. (415) 474-8800 October 16 - November 20, 2011.

A few years ago the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (LHT) on Sutter Street hosted, the leading African-American theatrical group in the Bay Area. Then disaster struck with the loss of their lease and the death, just months apart of their two founding leaders, Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter last year. They were nomads in the ensuing years, moving from space to space and sharing productions with other local organizations. Now for their 31st season they have acquired the re-furbished spacious Post Street Theatre, taken on the respected Steven Anthony Jones as their artistic director and have scheduled a four play season: Rejoice! (A world premiere musical) by Ron Stacker Thompson, 12/4/11 – 12/31/11; Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, 2/5/12 – 3/18/12; and Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage, 4/1/12 – 5/12/12.

Artistic director Jones has elected to celebrate this new beginning honoring Douglas Turner Ward, the author of the 1965 Days of Absence, who was one of the leaders in the African-American theatre movement. Ward and others founded the groundbreaking Negro Ensemble Company in New York where Days of Absence had a long run despite the fact it was criticized for its construction as a white-faced minstrel show. Consider the concept of an all white-faced cast in an unnamed Southern town bemoaning the “absence” of all the negros (pronounced ne- gras with a broad Southern boy accent) from the town and they could not be found. The dependence on the lack of cheap labor for the smooth daily activity of the townsfolk is a scathing satire buffeted with slapstick humor and mime routines (a number of the cast has experience with the SF Mime troop). Each member of the cast plays multiple roles and they are often accompanied by the ear-piercing sounds of a disco player. Jones throws in immediacy by starting the show with recent radio news clips of the effect of Hispanics leaving Alabama caused by restrictive immigration laws. But there is a problem: the activity goes on for one hour and 30 minutes and becomes repetitious thus loosing its mordacious bite.

The tedium/hyperactivity of the first play is replaced by the tightly written and superbly acted Almost Nothing. Brazilian author Marcos Barbosa is obviously greatly influenced by Harold Pinter and uses sparse dialog with gut wrenching pauses giving full meaning to the adage silence speaks louder than words. This play that saw the light of day at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2004 also was part of the Lisbon production of At Play In Harold Pinter’s Field.

As the play unfolds many unknowns arise that are unanswered questions creating a mystery with unsettling twists and turns. The mystery is enhanced by David Molina’s sound design. An upscale couple Antonio (Rhonnie Washington) and Sara (seductive Kathryn Tkel) have just returned from an evening out and Antonio has killed, in ‘self defense’, a young boy who approached their car. But was it self defense? Days later the unnamed boy’s mother Vania (marvelous Wilma Bonet) knocks on the door seeking revenge or is it money for her silence? Antonio hires a private detective Cesar (beautifully underplayed by Rudy Guerreo) to learn more about Vania suggesting she might not be the boy’s mother. There is a problem as Cesar casually suggests it is “almost nothing.” However that requires an unspoken solution.

Rhonnie Washington gives an Emmy winner performance as a controlling individual in his married life and in his approach to Vania and Cesar and is temporarily upstaged by seductive Kathryn Tkel (dressed to the nines by Michelle Mulholland) and diminutive Wilma Bonet who holds center stage in her encounters with Antonio. Running time is a tense, engrossing 60 minutes that is perfect ending to LHT re-emergence in their new venue.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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