Theater Review

At Barrington Stage, playwright weaves a biting, cautionary tale about the white-black divide in America

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PITTSFIELD — Sarcasm, anger, pain, drip like sap in Stacey Rose's generally clever, biting, cautionary satire, "America v. 2.1.: The Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro," which is having its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage.

Rose's play is the grand prize winner of Barrington Stage Company's first Bonnie & Terry Burman New Play Award.

The setting is a performance space in what Rose describes as "a secured theatrical venue ... and its backstage area" where a troupe of four black actors — Leigh (Kalyne Coleman), a health addict and the only female member of the troupe; Grant (Jordan Barrow), who keeps having dreams and visions; Jeffery (Peterson Townsend), anguished, restless, separated from a son he likely will never see again; and Donavan (Ansa Akyea), the group's leader, who has suffered loss of his own - daughter, wife — and for whom the stakes are high as he struggles to keep his company of actors together and functioning.

The time is a "not-too-distant future" America that has fallen under a regimented authoritarian regime, represented by a disembodied voice of authority (a firm and chilling Peggy Pharr Wilson).

The actors are here to perform a four-part revisionist history of race relations in America; a show they are required to perform over the course of "10 shows in 12 hours six days a week, with only two 30-minute breaks a day" under a Ministry of Education requirement, Leigh says, "that the people receive knowledge of the truth of our country's history." That "truth" is that the American Negro has never been grateful for the opportunities provided them by the founding fathers who brought the first slaves here from Africa; by the plantation owners who gave their black workers a full and satisfying life picking all the cotton they could want; a "truth" that views the Civil Rights movement as a vicious effort to turn America over to its black population and leaders; that sees the infiltration of pop culture and the entertainment industry by blacks as both insidious and the perfect place for them; that sees the salvation of America coming with the presidency of Donald Reagan.

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For Donavan and the actors in his company he has assembled, this is all a matter of survival — the cramped living quarters; the food rationing; the regimented lifestyle; the absence if privacy or anything apprioaching dignity or grace. Leigh suggests to Grant (the irony of their names is not lost) that they hook up as a couple — "It'll make it better for us if we're coupled," she says. "They give you more."

"Perform(ing) the truth about the American Negro as if we were not Negro," Jeffery says to Donavan with bitter disgust and fury, comes at a cost — freedom; being seen and valued as a human being. It should come as little surprise that as this performance of their show continues, everything will come undone; unravel in a way that is both explosive and, given a directorial touch at the very end, hopeful.

"America v. 2.1 ..." is an ambitious undertaking as Rose moves between the onstage "entertainment" and the offstage dynamics among the actors.

Rose, and especially director Logan Vaughn and choreographer Kevin Boseman draw from a treasure chest of cultural references, sources and theatrical styles and traditions that are used shrewdly.

Rose is less successful with the backstage segments. They provide necessary human context for what happens in the show the actors are performing. But we know very little about these characters — only the barest necessities. While too many too many writers explain too much, it feels here as if Rose hasn't given quite enough. With the notable exception of the opening backstage sequence showing the actors going through their warm-ups before their show begins, the offstage scenes almost feel more afterthought than integral.

Rose is blessed with an ensemble of accomplished performers who take the full theatrical measure, and then some, of her material, especially in the show-within-a show segments, which have been staged by Vaughn and choreographer Kevin Boseman with a keen appreciation of theater tradition and style that reinterprets those traditions in brash, new ways. There is an equally gratifying audacious brio, which builds to an explosive climax. When the laughter dies in "America v. 2.1 ... " it dies hard.


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