After the applause had stopped last night at the Terrace Theater, and the audience had stood up and was beginning to climb the stairs to the exit, a woman came out on the stage, looking confused and carrying a bouquet of roses. A few people noticed her, turned around and began applauding, and the exodus stopped.
The woman beckoned to the wings, and Ntozake Shange emerged, finally, to accept the belated bouquet. Everyone applauded, and everyone was standing, but you wouldn't exactly call it a standing ovation. A walking ovation, perhaps?
The show that evoked this amibguous acclaim calls itself (in the inverted snobbism of lower-case letters) "boogie woogie landscapes," and the audience reaction was exactly what the occasion called for. Poor timing was one of the motifs of the whole evening, not just the bouquet presentation. Better timing would have been to rehearse the show for a few more days -- and perhaps to spend a month or two rewriting it.
"boogie woogie landscapes" is something like a poetry reading with mime and interpretive dancing, some dialogue, a short story or two, a few songs and a bit of not-bad instrumental jazz. And editorials; that's where a lot of the trouble comes in.
The editorials had such titles as "extra, extra" (summary: Shange finds in The New York Times certain qualities that would not be desirable in a playmate) and "is not so good to be born a girl" (summary: "To be born a girl is to be born threatened," but that omits a lot of gruesome, perhaps even paranoid, detail). Some of the editorials were funny -- "rape prevention month," for example, which suggests that for one blessed month all the men in New York should be sent to New Jersey and all the women in New Jersey should be sent to New York. But more often, they ranged between the ghastly and the soporific.
It is a pity that the bad parts of "boogie woogie landscapes" are so bad, because Ntozake Shange is a brilliant writer and the good parts of it are magnificent -- particularly a long, evocative and extraordinarily funny memoir of childhood called "Carrie," which is worth about half the price of admission all by itself, in the vivid and versatile performance of Laurie Carlos. The rest of the admission price might be justified by the other appearances of this actress, who brings the show to life whenever she walks on-stage. And by a few rountines in which the cast shows a well-honed talent for parody of popular song and dance styles.
The cast is generally able but seems sometimes still a bit under-rehearsed -- particularly Calvin Lockhart, who is billed as a co-star but had not really mastered all his lines by opening night. Even when his memory improves, he should work a bit on his diction. In one potentially funny piece called "elegance in the extreme," the key word, "elegance," comes out so blurred that it is not recognized until the fourth or fifth time it is heard, and this blunts the point of the piece.
The show is described as being "about one night of dreams and memories of a young woman who has grown up in America," a formula that gives the author carte blanche to empty out her notebook of any odds and ends that might be passed off as dreams or memories (that is to say, anything in the world) without thought of structure, coherence or continuity. Shange's talent is genuine but wild; when she writes about a beaten-down, drug-addicted father leaving "blood on the bathroom floor," the effect is powerful, and when she poses the question: "Shall I go to Jonestown or to the disco?" a real existential dilemma takes on a splendid twist of absurdity.
But a talent like hers needs discipline to grow -- not necessarily the discipline of academic rules, which might stifle it, but perhaps the descipline of the competitive marketplace. If this were a Broadway show, like her masterpiece, "for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuff," she would have had to try it out, test its effect on audiences, prune and reshape it. In the more tolerant atmosphere of "art" theater, where quirkiness can be applauded as originiality, she is under no such constraint, and several segments of "boogie woogie landscapes" look like part of "for colored girls" that my have been -- quite correctly -- cut out.