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On Theater: A haunting premiere of ‘Little Black Shadows’ at SCR

On Theater: A haunting premiere of ‘Little Black Shadows’ at SCR
“Little Black Shadows,” written by Kemp Powers and directed by May Adrales, runs through April 29 at South Coast Repertory. (Photo by Tania Thompson)

If there's any shameful aspect of American history we would prefer to forget, it would definitely be slavery. How such immoral subjugation could occur in an otherwise civilized country seems unfathomable to today's U.S. citizens.

Yet such a practice was accepted in the South — and tolerated in the North — at least until the Civil War. Playwright Kemp Powers places this grim segment of history under the microscope of harsh reality in "Little Black Shadows," now on stage during its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.

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Powers tells his story from the viewpoint of two young house servants charged with attending to the wants and needs of the twin son and daughter of a powerful plantation owner and his proud, intolerant wife. The slaves are the "black shadows" who sleep under the twins' beds and talk only to each other after the lights are out.

Under the sensitive direction of May Adrales, the SCR production is most revealing concerning the attitudes of both blacks and whites in that prewar period. The production is beautifully staged with both interior and exterior settings (designed by David M. Barber) smoothly gliding on and off stage, augmented by actual shadows illustrating the story.

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The six performances are immaculate, particularly that of Giovanni Adams as the male servant Colis who yearns to reconnect with his mother, who's supposedly "out in the field" somewhere. The rail-thin Chauntae Pink is poignant as Toy, his female counterpart, who strives to educate herself by attempting to read a book under the bed lit by a jar full of captured fireflies.

The most commanding portrayal is rendered by Mark Doerr as the cruel father seeking to "make a man" out of his teen-age son (Daniel Bellusci), who prefers flute playing to hunting. Doerr paints an indelible portrait of a self-made successful landowner disappointed in the boy's lackadaisical nature, while Bellusci is quite convincing as the "different" young man chafing under his father's authority.

Emily Yetter blossoms as the twin sister, Mittie, who delights in teasing boys with her charms. Elyse Mirto also impresses as her haughty mother, a proud picture of the Old South who looks down her nose at other regions.

Powers' play takes a sharp left turn at the climax, one which seems unmotivated but which may become clearer on further reflection, regarding accepted practices of that period. It is, safe to say, a shocking moment that twists the action in a new direction.

Costumes, by Sara Ryung Clement, are well chosen for the time frame and Elizabeth Harper's lighting design is haunting, amplifying the story with shadows. Puppets and projections by Hana S. Kim further enhance the visual effect.

"Little Black Shadows" is an important new work that brings the time of slavery out of the shadows of history. It's an intriguing and compelling world premiere at South Coast Repertory.

"Little Black Shadows" runs through April 29 with shows at 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets start at $23. For more information, call (714) 708-5555 or visit scr.org.

Kids run rampant in ‘Lord of the Flies’

Few movies were more disturbing than the 1963 epic "Lord of the Flies," adapted from William Golding's 1954 novel about a group of British boys who are stranded on an island and who transition from civility to savagery.

Little has been heard of that story since, but now playwright Nigel Williams has adapted it for the stage. Its unsettling fierceness and brutality currently spills across the stage of Costa Mesa's Vanguard University.

College-age actors necessarily assume the roles originated by tweens, with young women filling several of the roles written for boys in this frenzied drama splendidly directed by Susan K. Berkompas. Some riveting individual performances emerge.

Robert Ball enriches his "good guy" character as Ralph, the boy who initially takes command and serves as the conscience of the tribe and becomes the lone companion of the pudgy, bespectacled Piggy, whom the others consistently ridicule.

His opposite number, and the commander of a rival faction, is Jack, superbly rendered by Zach Guevin. There is a frightening menace about this character and Guevin nails it in an electrifying performance.

The unfortunate Piggy, who continually strives for tribal harmony but is helpless without his glasses, is given dimension beyond his lowly status by Isaiah Nuno. Alondra Lucatero makes her gender cross quite effective as another outcast, Simon.

The spear-brandishing hunters under Jack's command are a fearsome force as they gravitate from meek choir boys to chanting, bloodthirsty savages. Fight choreographer Richard Soto has done some impressive work here.

As depicted in the stage version the lads are British survivors of a plane crash, but Golding's novel branded them wartime evacuees. Either way, the Vanguard actors breathe visceral life into their contentious characters.

"Lord of the Flies" is a stranger to local stages, but the acquaintance truly deserves to be met during Sunday's closing performance in Vanguard's Lyceum Theater.

"Lord of the Flies" closing performance is at 2 p.m. Sunday at Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets are $13 to $15. For more information, call (714) 668-6145.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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