A collection of poems, vignettes and scenes is rarely as satisfying an evening in the theater as a good play. But The Rep Inc.'s "Harlem Renaissance" goes as far as the form allows in providing a lively performance for two versatile actors.
Sadiqa Pettaway and Jaye W. Stewart, respectively the theater's associate managing director and producing artistic director, have chosen works by Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes to provide the backbone for the evening. Fortunately, the excellence of the material overcomes one of the initial confusions: the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Brooks was from Chicago, not Harlem, an inconsistency excused a little too glibly with the explanation that she was one of the authors inspired by the "golden age" known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Brooks, whose poems were the basis for another Rep production in 1976, provides some of the evening's poignant moments. In "We're the Only Colored People Here," a couple venture to a movie theater frequented by whites, shyly resist feeling intimidated and have a lovely time. (The sound track, inexplicably, is "The Sound of Music," a movie made a good 15 years after the story was published.)
"If You're Light and Have Long Hair," is about a young wife, pregnant with her first child, whose husband takes her to the Foxy Cats Ball, where her innocent excitement is crushed when her mate leaves her on a bench in order to dance with a woman who is "white as white," a betrayal she attributes to the liability of her own dark skin.
"Lincoln West" is a boy who is, he says, so ugly his own mother winces when she sees him. He feels rejected until he overhears a white man sitting near him at the movies tell his companion that the ugly child is "the real thing" as far as blacks are concerned.
The second act is largely occupied by Langston Hughes' unique characters, Madame Alberta K. Johnson and Jesse B. Simple. They enlighten us on a variety of subjects, notably Simple picturing a black general commanding a troop of white soldiers, and Madame trying to explain to the telephone company that she wasn't going to pay for collect calls because she had just accepted them, she hadn't made them. Hughes' wry wit is an excellent counterpoint to the poignancy of the early Brooks work.
Pettaway is tall and slim, with a dancer's grace and a model's elegance. She even takes a creditable turn at gospel singing. She occasionally pushes too hard, but for the most part her characterizations, from the wistful and angry young wife in the first act to the brassy Madame in the second, are adept. Stewart, who also directed the show, is equally strong and versatile, and brings his own intensity to the endearing "ugly" Lincoln West and wise and affable Jesse Simple.
The show plays this weekend at The Rep Inc.