When New Federal Theatre's founder and producing director, Woodie King Jr., welcomed playwright Ed Bullins and original cast members of the award-winning 1975 production of The Taking of Miss Janie to the stage for a post-performance discussion, the original Monty, Adeyemi Lythcott, told the audience that the 1975 run was cut short because the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater received repeated bomb threats in response to the disturbing opening scene -- a black man raping a white woman -- and the NYPD couldn't ensure the cast's safety. In the current climate of heightened racial tension, sparked by last week's fatal Queens shooting of 23-year-old African American Sean Bell and the wounding of his two friends, all unarmed, this compelling revival of Bullins' provocative study of racial relations and African-American identity could not be timelier.
Shauneille Perry, a vital presence in New York's black theatre movement since the 1960s, knows the play's philosophizing, pot-smoking, militant, anti-establishment, free-love milieu well. Under her able direction, Garrett Lee Hendricks' Malcolm X wannabe; Lee Gundersheimer's penniless, drug-addicted Jewish beat poet; Robbie C. Sublett's smooth-talking white jazz musician; Carsey Walker, Jr.'s black intellectual; Elizabeth Wirth's white hippie nymphomaniac; Alia Chapman's dutiful black wife-turned-feminist lesbian; and Genia Morgan's sassy black good-time girl evoke all the idealism and excitement of the turbulent '60s. And as the swaggering, sexually confident Monty -- Bullins' complex portrait of a young black man grasping for identity amidst militant rhetoric and racial prejudice -- charismatic Royce Johnson is a smoldering time bomb. But while Kate Russell perfectly embodies well-bred, liberal, college-educated Janie throughout, her opening rape scene disappoints. Bullins' rambling monologue signals she's deeply distraught, confused, and emotionally shattered after being brutally raped by her close friend of 10 years. Russell plays the scene as if Monty had done nothing worse than switch channels during Mod Squad, giving Johnson very little to react to.
Pushing the theatrical envelope of its time by experimenting with new forms, such as the stop-action monologue; foreshadowing postmodernism by exploding stage convention with a self-referential monologue; and casting a steely eye on the conflicting forces that shaped African-American identity during the era of civil rights integrationists and black-power adherents, Bullins' explosive, unsettling drama is worth a second look.
Presented by New Federal Theatre
at the Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center/Recital Hall, 466 Grand St., NYC.
Nov. 30-Dec. 23. Wed.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
Casting by Lawrence Evans.