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Gambit Weekly Pointed Questions

By Dalt Wonk

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Two shows currently on view might have been chosen to demonstrate how differently theater is viewed by the black and white communities in New Orleans. The Amorous Flea (directed by Elliot Keener) at Rivertown Rep and the Chakula Cha Jua Company at the Contemporary Arts Center represent opposite approaches to the stage. And both would gain from an admixture of precisely the quality the other stresses.

The Amorous Flea is a musical comedy based on Moliere's School for Wives. The play follows Arnolphe, an aging lesser-luminary of the ancient regime who tries to create the perfect wife by means of a somewhat diabolical stratagem: he immures his future bride from the age of 4 in a convent in order to keep her totally ignorant of the world.

For all I know, Moliere may have gotten the idea from some egregious real-life example. But the play lacks the daring originality and acerbic undertone of his greatest work and has an inescapable feeling of formula, of old "tried-and-true" farce.

Take this thin stuff, remove the simple elegance of Moliere's language, add a dozen pale (if at times ingenious) songs, sprinkle liberally with a garden variety of stock sight gags and -- voila! -- The Amorous Flea.

Generally, I am suspicious of the question, "What's the point?" After all, laughter is its own justification, and so, for that matter, is "a pleasant evening in the theater." Nonetheless, by the end of The Amorous Flea, that nasty little question had wormed its way into my mind.

There is a hint of an answer in Randy Cheramie's thoroughly engaging performance in the lead role. In Cheramie's presence, one gets a taste of that special joy to be had by slipping away from the oppressively familiar everyday world and spending a few hours amid quirky and amusing predicaments dreamt up by a theatrical genius of the past.

The rest of the cast (Gary Rucker,Mulino, Claire Conti, Peter Gabb, John Joly, Amanda Norman-Rucker and Wayne Blankenship) provides some droll moments, but the actors too often are "immured" in the artificiality of the production.

Point Taken

On the other hand, "What's the point?" is a question that could never occur to an audience member at the current Chakula Cha Jua Company presentation. It is almost entirely "point."

The show consists of two parts (both directed by Cha Jua). Blue Lights and River Songs is a choral recitation of poetry by local writer Tom Dent, and They Are Poisoning the Air and I Can't Breathe (written by Cha Jua) is a choral disquisition on the theme of environmental justice.

The entire program takes place on a bare stage (in Air, a ladder and some posters are added), and both parts are performed by two men and two women. In the first, the actors wear black slacks and black T-shirts; in the second, they are dressed nondescriptly.

The idea clearly is to put together a show that is inexpensive and easy to move. This is community theater in the sense of theater that can be taken out into the "community" -- meaning, by and large, the black community. And it sets out to address the concerns of its target audience.

In Dent's poetry, these concerns are general. In an impressionistic text, he gives us flashes from the life experience and history of Louisiana's African-Americans. The poetry attempts to create in words the same communal feelings that a historical pageant evokes with images: a vital sense of continuity with the past.

Commissioned by Junebug Productions for its upcoming Environmental Justice Festival, Air strives to alert viewers to the injurious effects of pollution and the predilection of "dirty" industries for locating in areas where the populace is predominantly poor and black.

The actors (Patricia Shropshire, Linda Merritt, Will McKee, Kim Brown, Andrea El-Mansura, Drena Shar'ron Clay, Harold Evans and Chakula Cha Jua) present this very pared-down political theater and its message with conviction.

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