A treasure-trove of black talent on the New York stage
Three recent openings have reflected the range, richness, and uniqueness of black theater. In order of arrival, they were "Black Broadway," the marvelous celebration of song and dance (already reviewed on these pages); "Home," a happy transfer from Off Broadway; and "Mother Courage and Her Children," an adaptation of Brecht's chronicle play, at the Public/Newman Theater.
To make everything foursquare, gospel jubilation will resound when Vinnette Carroll's "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" revisits Broadway at the Ambassador Theater come the end of May. Mother Courage and Her Children Chronicle play by Bertolt Brecht. Adapted by Ntozake Shange, with lyrics adapted by Louisa Rose and music by William Elliott. Directed and designed by Wilford Leach.
"Mother Courage and Her Children" demands stamina and determination, patience and fortitude -- primarily from the actress in the title role, but also from the audience. Gloria Foster was in splendid form as the dauntless Vivandiere the evening I saw a preview of the new version at the Public/Newman. The spectators responded attentively and appreciatively as Miss Foster and her fellow players traversed the chronology of ordeals in war and peace, as retold by Ntozake Shange.
Miss Shange has transported Brecht's didactic drama from the Europe of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) to the American Southwest of the 1860s and '70s. Most of the characters are Afro-Americans instead of Europeans. While some changes are more accountable than others, the adaptation remains generally faithful to brecht's episodic plot as Mother Courage and her doomed offspring trundle their sutler's wagon from one battle scene to another.
Relocating the itinerant action in Texas, the Oklahoma Territory, and similar frontier points enables this "Mother Courage" to assail white America's treatment, not only of the ex-slave population, but of the American Indian.
Yet the adaptation is a history drama with racial overtones rather than a racial tract. Mother Courage remains a symbolic figure of human destiny. At the same time, the climactic scene acquires a terrifying impact of its own by substituting hooded Ku Klux Klansmen preparing to fire a sleeping black settlement for Brecht's Roman Catholics preparing to sack Halle.
Miss Foster conveys with bold histrionic strokes the emotional depth of Mother Courage's fierce maternalism, battle-scarred defiance and cynicism, and determination to preserve, at whatever cost, the cart and goods that are her living. Jack Landron and Reyno are admirable as the woman's two sons. Ruthanna Graves makes a particularly touching and, in the end, gallant figure of the mute Katie. Robert Christian as the cook who would woo Mother Courage and Morgan Freeman as the philosophic "good for nothing" chaplain lend their strength and substance to the production, directed and designed by Wilford Leach. As Yvette, the Louisiana adventuress for whom rich oldsters provide a natural prey, Hattie Winston comically enlivens the scenes in which she appears.
For other than committed Brechtians, "Mother Courage" may begin to pall before the conclusion of its nearly three-hour playing time. The work has its longueurs as well as its rigors. Dramatic excitement is intermittent. But Miss Shange, Mr. Leach, Miss Foster, and their colleagues have in many respects met a formidable challenge and achieved some striking effects. William Elliott's score in the Kurt Weill manner includes settings for the lyrics adapted by Louisa Rose. The period costumes are by Patricia McGourty and Jennifer Tipton designed the lighting. 'Home' moves uptown
Charles Brown, L. Scott Caldwell, and Michele Shay are better than ever in "Home," newly transferred from lower Second Avenue to the Cort Theater. Sam Art Williams employs anecdote, poetry, and a gift for vivid characterization in his heartwarming folk play about a North Carolina country boy whose long journey home mingles elements of the prodigal son and a black Everyman. Douglas Turner Ward has again staged the Negro Ensemble Company production, with an all-purpose farmhouse porch setting by Felix E. Cochren, costumes by Alvin B. Perry, and lighting by Martin Aronstein. "Home" is a treasure.