Sometimes "I Ain't Yo' Uncle" sings, more often it stings.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's deconstruction of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" ought to play in Los Angeles for months--the next few months, in particular, as the city is increasingly obsessed with two trials that touch on racial issues.
Instead, for lack of a local producer or money for high-powered marketing, the show will play only through Sunday. And it's at the Ivar Theatre, a physically inhospitable venue for this kind of satire.
Robert Alexander's script goes to the source of the black/white tensions that afflict L.A. It demonstrates how tellingly--albeit sometimes unwittingly--Harriet Beecher Stowe's landmark 1849 novel outlined the dimensions of racism and reactions to it. Yet Alexander also respects the fact that Stowe told a whale of a yarn, and he keeps it compelling on its own terms, even as he applies his own highly stylized treatment.
In a brief prologue, Alexander puts Stowe (Andrea Snow) onstage and assigns four of her black characters to question their roles in her tale. At first she can't figure out their complaints. Wasn't she the abolitionist sweetheart of her day? And haven't there been nearly 150 years of civil rights advances since then? "What is it you people want?" she asks.
So they re-enact the story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The basis for their script is the antique melodrama of George Aiken's version, which toured America for decades before it was deemed politically incorrect. But the contemporary characters (the young upstart George is now an executive with Clorox) add their own perspective.
It's an invigorating ride, told with remarkable sympathy for characters who have widely contrasting viewpoints. Alexander is not about to dismiss Uncle Tom (Ron Verrett) as an "Uncle Tom," but nor does he regard the bitter Topsy (Dee Russell) as just a silly girl. Little Eva (Greta R. Bart) gets her due, and Stowe herself finally begins to understand what's happening.
Tom and Topsy provide the most haunting moments. Verrett shuffles on stage at the beginning, but he stands tall by Act Two, and he's a peerlessly brave martyr by the end. His piercing eyes and raised eyebrows provide much of the show's unspoken commentary.
Russell's Topsy is much more than a figure of comic relief. The bitter hurt and the headstrong spirit of her 19th-Century scenes are curdled into an explosive image of a contemporary gangbanger by the end of the show.
Then there are George (Leith Burke) and Eliza (Amara Tabor), the young parents who flee to Canada. George insists on returning to the South to become a warrior on behalf of the slaves; Eliza resents his bravado, as well as his departure.
Scenes that Stowe never wrote--but might have if she had fully considered the subtext or been able to go beyond her own puritanical bent--are thrown into the mix. The writing and acting of the main story begin with arch artifice but gradually become more real--until the violence perpetrated by Simon Legree (Terry Lamb) is palpably painful.
Likewise, Alan Curreri's set is based on 19th-Century convention (see Eliza cross the icy river!), but adds an overlay of more representational projections--including a still of the Rodney G. King beating at one point. Keiko Shimosato's costumes span the decades with flair.
Everyone except Verrett plays at least two roles, and the transformations between characters are, in most cases, impeccable. A three-man band (Elliot Humberto Kavee, Muziki Robertson, Eric Crystal) comments from the side. Their sounds range from heavenly choirs to fierce outbursts from reed player Crystal that propel the action as much as any of the words.
Unfortunately, the sound is not always well balanced, and some of the words--including most of Topsy's solo rap--are unintelligible.
The Ivar's high ceilings and detached layout do not create a feeling of intimacy. It's in stark contrast to the semi-thrust configuration of San Diego Repertory's Lyceum Stage, where the same show played in 1991. There, at least on opening night in front of a packed house, "I Ain't Yo' Uncle" was a red-hot experience. At the Ivar, with only a spotty crowd on opening night, it was quite a few degrees cooler.
Still, "Uncle" has the potential to be exactly the right show for L.A. at this point in our history, and full houses at the remaining performances would help it fulfill that potential.
* "I Ain't Yo' Uncle," Ivar Theatre, 1605 N. Ivar, Hollywood. Tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $18-$20 (students/seniors/groups $12). (213) 464-3667. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. Andrea Snow: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Marks, Ophelia Amara Tabor: Eliza Harris, Marie St. Clare, Cassy Leith Burke: George Harris, Sambo Dee Russell: Topsy, Aunt Chloe Ron Verrett: Uncle Tom Rick Hickman: Shelby, St. Clare, Young Shelby Terry Lamb: Haley, Simon Legree Elliot Humberto: Kavee Phineas, Skeggs Amos Glick: Loker, Mann Greta R. Bart: Little Eva, Emmeline Eric Crystal: A Doctor
A San Francisco Mime Troupe production. Adapted by Robert Alexander from George Aiken's dramatization of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. Directed by Michael Gene Sullivan based on original direction by Dan Chumley. Musical director Elliot Humberto Kavee. Set Alan Curreri. Costumes Keiko Shimosato. Lights and stage manager Gregory R. Tate.