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Black history from a Pulitzer winner. Negro Ensemble Company kicks off five-play cycle

Sally and Prince Parts 1 and 2 of ``We (A History in Five Plays),'' by Charles Fuller. Directed by Douglas Turner Ward. The Negro Ensemble Company has launched Charles Fuller's ambitious cycle of chronicle plays about black Americans in the latter half of the 19th century. ``Sally'' and ``Prince'' form Parts 1 and 2 of the as yet unfinished series, which Mr. Fuller calls ``We (A History in Five Plays).'' The striking introduction proves to be a work worth waiting for from the dramatist whose ``A Soldier's Play'' won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for drama and an Academy Award nomination when filmed as ``A Soldier's Story.''

The first installment of ``We'' takes place in the winter of 1862-63 in and around Beaufort, S.C. It was a turbulent and threatening time. Ex-slaves roamed the countryside - fugitives from a hated past facing an uncertain future. ``Sally'' begins dramatizing the ordeal in which the promises of a newfound freedom coexist with apprehension among the freed men and women over how they will fare in what is still a white-dominated world.

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Sally (Michele Shay), the widowed title character of the first play, personifies one attitude among the slave population. Sally remains fiercely loyal to her former master. She thoroughly distrusts the Yankee liberators who, she has heard, plan to ship the former slaves to Cuba. Defying his mother, Sally's son Yocum (Alvin Alexis) welcomes a liberation already in progress. The youngster is encouraged by Prince (Samuel L. Jackson), Sally's temporary lover, a sergeant in the Union Army's first all-black regiment. Prince's fate becomes central to a continuing dramatic situation in which Mr. Fuller addresses many of the conflicting issues of the national trauma.

Prince's first test occurs when some of his men threaten to strike over the fact that they are receiving only $7 a month, against the $10 they were promised and which the white men receive. Prince must decide whether to conceal the identities of his conspiring subordinates or testify against them, thus risking his own court-martial. Prince's decision, plus his murdering of a Confederate captive in the second play, turns the once-proud sergeant into a fugitive who must conceal his identity in order to survive. The action of ``Prince,'' the second part of the cycle, moves from the South Carolina locales of ``Sally'' to a wartime Virginia setting in 1864.

The two plays combine to spell out the anomalies and contradictions of the tragically complex situation. In ``Prince'' the captured Confederate spy (Raynor Scheine) assures the black sergeant: ``The Yankees hate you as much as I do.'' The cruel assertion is borne out by the behavior of certain white officers. Even members of the Christian Relief Association, dedicated to helping ex-slaves, display attitudes ranging from patronizing philanthropy to angry impatience.

Elementary economics plays a critical role in each of the first two segments. In ``Sally,'' it is the hated pay differential. In ``Prince,'' one of the ex-slaves sent back to picking cotton (a decision none of them comprehends) protests that he and his fellow workers are not receiving the wages promised them. Again, it is the white man's decision that prevails - even after Lincoln has issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

There is nothing didactic about the Fuller historical method, as the dramatist deals with a whole catalog of critical issues. And there is no sentimentalizing of these black victims. Candor marks the series of vignettes, dialogues, and brief interludes of action - all brought to riveting theatrical life under Douglas Turner Ward's direction. The excellent cast, most of whose members appear in both plays, includes Peggy Allston, Cynthia Bond, Carla Brothers, Graham Brown, Rosanna Carter, O.L. Duke, Carl Gordon, William Mooney, Pierie McDonald, Ed Wheeler, and Hattie Winston.

Events move with cinematic swiftness across Charles McClennahan's ramped monochromatic stage, with Arthur Reese's lighting to contribute to the sense of movement. Judy Deering's costumes, from red-and-blue army uniforms to ragtag cast-offs, make a vital visual contribution to the period atmosphere.

The two opening ``We'' plays will be performed in rotating repertory through Feb. 15. By coincidence, the Fuller cycle comes to the stage in the wake of August Wilson's remarkable ongoing series of plays about black Americans' experience in the 20th century. These major events are providing new insights into long-neglected aspects of the American epic.

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