Remember Leroi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka? In the early '60s, his "Dutchman" gave black theater a new, compelling voice that turned white liberals even whiter.
In the program for another early Jones play, "The Slave," now at the Gardner Stage in West Hollywood, director Sterling Macer Jr. acknowledges that some have suggested that this kind of agitprop, which excoriates assimilation and challenges African-Americans to root white ways out of their lives, is antiquated or irrelevant.
"The Slave" speaks of a coming race war between black and white America. But even the militant protagonist remarks that probably not much will change--only the complexion of the new tyranny.
Today, such developments as the rise of David Duke ring an urgent alarm that sweeps this play out of its '60s cobwebs. Still, it's not as accessible as "Dutchman."
"The Slave" is a garrulous harangue, evident by the tough sledding at the Gardner. That's not to disparage the production values--check that tremendous falling beam--or the actors, notably the fierce and visceral Gregory Millar as the black revolutionary. But the play's verbosity, that up-from-the-ghetto newfound intellectual overspeak, and its corrosive anger, is a drag, theatrically.
Set sometime in the future in a suburb of a large Eastern city that's under siege by black revolutionary forces, the three-character play dramatizes Walker Vessels (Millar), the pistol-packing leader of an Afro-American army who has flipped over the edge in his espousal of hate and violence.
He breaks into the house of a white woman (Carrie Robinson), formerly his wife but now married to a white liberal (Joe Hulser) who was Vessels' professor and ally in their idealistic university days. Vessels now is angry enough to kill them. (Jones himself divorced a white woman shortly after the play was produced in 1964.)
Nobody's sympathetic here. The professor is a weak, self-righteous assimilationist, the woman a big whine.
Director Macer, who recently acted in Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!" in La Jolla and Los Angeles, means to warn all parties that attention must be paid when nationalism leads to fascism. He has added--appropriately--a personal prologue to the play, a collection of videos that includes clips of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the Rodney King beating.
"The Slave," Gardner Stage, 1501 N. Gardner, Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday 2 and 7 p.m. Indefinitely. $12; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.