So what's the big deal about Circuit Playhouse's production of No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs that has the Memphis theatergoing public all abuzz? Could it be the fact that it's called No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs? The play by John Henry Redwood takes its double-take-inducing name from signs that could be found on the outskirts of tiny racist towns throughout the Jim Crow South. The story it tells, stripped from the backwoods of North Carolina in the days before the civil rights movement, is bleak indeed, filled with brutal rape and bloody murder. That said, it's not nearly as "in your face" as the title might suggest. If anything, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs' kitchen-sink acting and dysfunctional-family dynamic are a throwback to the mid-20th-century dramas of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams -- plays that were full of hardscrabble poetry and social commentary, all wrapped up in traditional melodrama with just a hint of the modern.
The "No" play, as it is often called by those who don't have a stomach for speaking (or typing) the title, has a rather antiquated message as well: Silence is a vote of complicity. It is relevant nonetheless.
No Niggers begins with the image of a woman dressed entirely in black making her way down a hill. She carries a kerosene lantern. Her face is veiled, and her hands are gloved. No identifying feature is visible. She hums an old gospel song but is otherwise mute. As soon as she reaches the bottom of the hill, she's gone again like a mirage. This is Aunt Cora. Her ghostly image and redundant actions are immediately reminiscent of the Madrecita in Tennessee Williams' Camino Real and the silent specter of Death that stalks the doomed characters in Eugene Ionesco's The Killing Game. Like her theatrical predecessors, Cora is both a protecting and an avenging angel. A white man raped her when she was young and newly married. Her husband sought revenge and was lynched as a result. Silence is the penance Cora pays daily for having told her husband the truth, sending him off to his death. But this is not Cora's play. Her story is merely the backdrop and her lurking presence a device to create tension.
The play begins in earnest when Cora's niece Mattie, a loving wife and devoted mother of two precocious girls, is raped and impregnated by a white man while her husband is away working as a gravedigger. Too many people know the truth, and she fears that when her husband finds out he'll end up swinging from the end of a white man's rope. She'd rather have her husband leave her thinking she's a whore than follow in her Aunt Cora's footsteps. Ann Perry Wallace resists the urge to overplay Mattie and comes off as a portrait of strength and near-fatal stubbornness. She is upstaged only by Ash Taylor as daughter Joyce, a bookish young girl on the verge of womanhood, and an astonishing Briana Jenai Miller as daughter Matoka, a sassy but good-natured brat with all the show's best lines.
Like his real-world wife Ann, the always-solid Darius Wallace cleaves to the subtle path. As Rawl, a hardworking family man who can neither abandon his family nor live with his wife's alleged infidelity, he is entirely believable and completely sympathetic even at his most abrasive.
It's hard to see what purpose the role of Yaveni serves other than to provide a Jewish character to serve the play's title and a voice to point out that black folks don't have an exclusive on oppression. The haunted, guilt-ridden character is given the play's most grating and pedantic lines, but Marler Stone manages them with quiet dignity. He makes his character's simple, liberal platitudes sound downright profound.
Redwood, a known fan of August Wilson, has, in the Wilsonian tradition, attempted to end his tragic play on a hopeful note. But all this forced hopefulness does is slap a smiley face on top of some otherwise gruesome violence. The rapist in this story gets what he deserves, and we are expected to embrace it as "good killing" and move on to the happy ending. But it's neither that simple nor that easy.
This past Saturday, the audience thundered to their feet applauding as the last light faded on the "No" play. I can't say that I have ever seen an audience response that was so positive, forceful, and united. Redwood's play has its inconsistencies, and director Tony Horne has done little to hide them. But the tight ensemble performances, and the powerful message more than made up for any deficiencies in the dialogue.
Through August 22nd