February 23, 2010
When Bill Cosby dressed down the black community for its glorification of inarticulate thuggery he created a firestorm that has yet to abate. How does one speak to the black experience yet not traffic in stereotypes or alienate one’s audience. It’s a loaded issue and not easily discussed (as Cosby and now President Obama have found out).
Here in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest cities in America, that question has been taken up by a new African-American theater collective, The BaseRoots Theater Company, led by Bobby Bermea. BaseRoots “assumes the artist’s responsibility of reflecting the culture we live in, shaping it and nurturing it to new maturity” and “to bring an old art form to new communities.” An important mission and one not to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, with their first production, ROCKET MAN, written by Mr. Bermea, they stumble, hard.
Everything about this production seems underdeveloped, from the script to the set to the direction to the sound. The story is set in the future where space travel is common place and living on Mars, Venus, and the moon, are realities. Yet this “reality” is given only cursory attention and had it not been mentioned, nothing about this production would place it in the future. The dialogue is irritatingly clichéd and littered with BET-ifications. True that. Street lingo changes month to month, what was the shit turns to phat turns to ill and on and on and on, yet in ROCKET MAN, current street slang litters these characters’ dialogue. Go back 100 years and compare a typical conversation with one from today and significant differences would be readily apparent, yet the dialogue in ROCKET MAN seems stereotypically dated already. Yo, woman. It is sub-par sit-com writing at best, and at worst, is a subtle confirmation of the stereo-typing Mr. Cosby was addressing. Whenever Mr. Bermea, as the title character, addresses the subject of space, the language becomes self-consciously poetic and the street idiom disappears, setting it apart from the rest of the dialogue. To be a rocket man is, apparently, a higher calling than being a father and husband, and an earthbound That’s My Mama idiom is incapable of expressing it. What’s your point here? If it’s that life for black Americans on earth is never going to change and that male heads of households must absent themselves (or die – saw that one coming a mile away) to have self-worth, than this very thin play doesn’t begin to address so incredibly pessimistic a premise. And if it isn’t, then why the difference in speech? And what are you saying about black American home life and black women running households? Or maybe none of this was meant to be addressed and we’re to take this play as a simple story of wanderlust and domestic strife. Either way, the play fails.
The lack of imagination in all aspects of the production is confounding. The set is, sadly, an eyesore. On what planet will orange satin, AstroTurf, blue painted plywood and Flintstones tableware make up the home of the future? (You can actually mask the seam between two flats without its being noticed.) The starry night sky is lovely at times, but not when rocket man is describing space as endless deep black, while silhouetted in starlight. The mis-direction (Antonio Sonera directs) throughout the play at times borders on the (unintentionally) hilarious, as when rocket man (in “outer space”) slow motion walks around the stage in his (Honey Bucket) spacesuit (and why does he continue to wear the spacesuit for so much of the domestic scene work? And for that matter, why does no one ever change clothes, even when they leave the city to go camping? Why do they even go camping is the question that should be asked. And, apparently, clothing in the future will only differ in its use of velcro and wacky applique.). At other times the direction is unnecessarily confusing, as when the wonderful Lauren Steele sings Elton John’s Rocket Man over Bermea’s space soliloquy (both rendered unintelligible). And sometimes it’s just embarrassing, as when Bermea step and fetches his way through a goin’ fishin’ routine set to the theme from Mayberry RFD (don’t ask), or moving boulders that are terrifically heavy for Bermea but light as a feather for Steele (who also kneels in the painted stream with no acknowledgement of the water). And the father/daughter football routine (again, why?) that leaves Bermea gasping for breath while Steele stands placidly over him, her beatific smile calming our alarm. Transitions sometimes have sound, sometimes not, to no rhyme or reason. And late in the play an official delivers the news that Bermea’s character has died in space, fair enough, but he delivers it to the 12-year-old daughter and not to the mother waiting inside the house. Come on.
I, obviously, am not a fan of this production, mostly because of the opportunity squandered by this company’s first offering. The three actors: Bermea, Andrea White and, especially, Lauren Steele, have ability, and god knows any production takes a huge amount of time and energy to bring to fruition, so to see such an unimaginative and amateurish product is disheartening. To peg yourself as a company dedicated to bringing theater to an audience that is typically underrepresented is a big responsibility. For many, a first time play-going experience can create a lifelong theater-goer, but for just as many, it can deter them from ever setting foot in a theater again. Like Teatro Milagro, who I find to be consistently underwhelming in the quality of their scripts, direction and especially production values, BaseRoots needs to be diligent in what it puts forward.
But making theater is always a learning experience, and hopefully with their next outing, BaseRoots will offer us a thoroughly examined and executed production.