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Along Racial Lines

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There are two dramatic mirrors currently being held up to the nature of racism; one at a predominantly black theater; one at a predominantly white theater. In both cases, the casts are exceptionally strong and the productions are exceptionally accomplished. Both plays offer complex viewpoints, along with a few surprises. And both end on a note of muted optimism.

In John Henry Redwood's No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, at the Anthony Bean, we confront racism at its most brutal. The year is 1949; the place, a poor backwater town in North Carolina. Institutionalized Jim Crow racism leaves African Americans prey to the lowest impulses of the worst element of the white population.

The only escape is to move North. This is what Rawl Cheeks, a decent family man and tenant farmer, wants to do: join his brother, who has become a mechanic in Cleveland. Mattie, his wife of 18 years, doesn't want to leave the place where she was born; she's also reluctant to abandon her Aunt Cora, a mysterious, demented woman who wears a black veil, carries a lantern in daylight and never speaks.

When Rawl goes off for several months to earn some extra money, Mattie is raped by a white man. This grotesque throwback to the prerogatives of slavery is apparently a common danger run by the local African-American women, who dare not denounce their attackers to the sheriff -- or tell their husbands or kinsmen, who are likely to pay for their anger with their lives.

What is Mattie to do? How is she to explain to her two daughters, 17-year-old Joyce and 11-year-old Matoka? Further complicating the situation is an elderly Orthodox Jew named Yaveni Aaronsohn, who has befriended Rawl in the course of gathering data for a book he's writing called The Similarity in Racial Suffering Between Negroes and Jews.

In and around the stark drama are many delightful grace notes of comedy, particularly involving the young sisters and the odd-couple give-and-take between the finicky Jewish intellectual and the robust, good-natured black laborer.

Under Anthony Bean's direction, Gwendolyne Foxworth turns in a sterling, nuanced performance as the beleaguered Mattie, while Oliver Thomas has an easy authority both in the lighter moments and when faced with what seems an inexplicable betrayal. Michael Jefferson, Gail Glapion, Lauren Malara and Katherine Raymond fill out this world with truthful and compelling performances. Chad Talkington created the impressive set.

From the racial tragedies of the mid-20th century South, it's quite a leap to a postmodern comedy of manners, set in liberal, New England academia. In Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, a young dean named Sarah (played with deft charm by Lara Grice) does her unequal best to offset the smug imbecility of her colleagues in the face of a shocking racial incident: an African-American student is receiving threatening notes.

Professor Collins (Gavin Mahlie), recently Sarah's significant other, and Dean Strauss (Randy Cheramie) decree a series of full-campus confessional meetings that manage to inflame ill will and unleash havoc. Only the down-to-earth security guard (Jerry Leigh Leighton) seems to have his head screwed on right in this heady atmosphere of politically correct posturing. Meanwhile, Sarah is browbeaten by a Hispanic student ... oh, excuse me, a Nuyorican student (he's insulted at being offered a $12,000 scholarship because of his hyper-acute sensitivity to semantics), harassed by her harpy of a boss (Shelley Poncy) and conned by an ambitious preppie-type (Kalon Thibodeaux) who turns out not so bad, after all.

Although the play pauses in the second act to take a serious look at the agonies of middle-class racial guilt (assuming you think the agonies of middle-class racial guilt deserve a serious look), its real and considerable strengths reside in the light, well-crafted flow of comic dilemmas that descend on the plucky heroine. Mostly, it's a satire. And mostly, it's a great deal of fun.

Lisa Jo Epstein directed this accomplished group of players, who have a knack for finding the subtle, throwaway detail here and there that pushes you over the edge separating a smile from a hoot of pleasure. David Korins designed the excellent set.

While the two productions are excellent, I do have a few reservations about the scripts. In the first, the victims are awfully nice. In the second, the antagonists are awfully dense. Not that there aren't nice victims and dense antagonists, but it does feel at times like you're getting sold a bill of goods, if you know what I mean.

But these are both fascinating worlds to enter -- amusing and gripping by turns. Ryan Rillette's reinvigorated Southern Rep and Anthony Bean's up-and-coming Community Theater are off to a solid start.

Sarah (Lara Grice, right) tries to put her feelings into words for her colleague (Gavin Mahlie) in Southern Rep's season debut, Spinning Into Butter.
  • Sarah (Lara Grice, right) tries to put her feelings into words for her colleague (Gavin Mahlie) in Southern Rep's season debut, Spinning Into Butter.

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