On a circular stage of the Lincoln Center complex this past weekend, a company from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and alumni of Workships for Careers in the Arts displayed their gifts for interpreting traditional material in a resoundingly innovative manner.
"Puttin' on the Mask," a new work conceived and mounted by Mike Malone, one of the founders of Workshops, which evolved into Ellington, veered from its stated purpose of documenting minstrelsy as a native American form of theater. After a cohesive start, the production was rushed and slightly unraveled at the end, simply because such an ambitious overview cannot be limited to 1 1/2 hours.
Yet, "Mask's" consistent imagination and vivacity did showcase the Washington troupe as one that can fluidly interpret a theatrical dinosaur such as minstrelsy and turn its elements into a vehicle for their emerging talent.
The Ellington group was part of a month-long "Black Theater Fesival U.S.A." at Llincoln Center. The youngest troupe of the dozen national companies represented, Ellington was also one of the few to bring a production that had never been mounted before. In addition to the Ellington ensemble, Washington is also represented inthe festival by The Repertory, Inc. The strugging descendent of the D.C. Black Repertory Company, the Rep will perform "Five on the Black Hand Side" on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Mask" starts with a lament to an early slave dance, "Juba," sung by Workshops alumna Carol Maillard, and quickly moves to an idyllic rendition of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." Two city slickers intrude on this complacency, bringing gray-stripe trousers, wide grins and fast feet. Minstrelsy is born. From here the show revolves around the form's evolution and antics, moved along deftly by Lamont Prince, a Workshops Street Theater alumnus, Ralph Glenmore an Ellington alumnus, and Chuck Lewis, an Ellington senior.
Along with the rest of the group of 20, they show a sharp sense of the timing and irony, the keys to the ministrel form, and an ease on the often crowded stage. Because of a lack of exposure, self-confidence often substituted for professional polish but those gaps could be overlooked for some snappy scenes. When they respond to "Dark Town Reveille," they applaud with a coordinated shake of ribboned tambourines and resume their stiff seated position as softly as a flock of swallows.