Pearl Cleage Tonight

Local Arts Reviews

Pearl Cleage Tonight: Trusting the Power

ALLGO Art Space, through Oct. 29

Running Time: 2 hrs

So can someone tell me what's up with the Austin theatregoing public? This last Sunday, I alone was treated to a fairly entertaining afternoon at the new ALLGO Art Space in East Austin, where Pro Arts Collective presented two Pearl Cleage one-act plays. I say "I alone" because, at least to begin with, I was the only audience member.

The first play, Hospice, concerns a mother and daughter trying to come to grips with their dysfunctional relationship. Alice is dying of cancer while her daughter, Jenny, has gone into labor. As each suffers her own personal pain, both play out their mutual pain as they discuss Alice's abandonment of the younger Jenny for the bohemian life of a Paris poet. Jenny constantly reaches out to her mother, and Alice consistently pushes her away, each trying, and failing, to make the other not only see, but understand the struggle each has endured. While Andrena Galloway's Jenny doesn't quite convince, Jennifer Cumberbatch's Alice more than convinces. At the beginning of the play, she crawls out of bed, disrobes, contemplates her disease-ridden body in a mirror, then retires to a couch where she listens to Leontyne Price sing an aria from Madame Butterfly, expressions of intense pain and joy alternating on her face and shivering through her body. It's theatre at its powerful best.

The second play, Late Bus to Mecca, concerns a sometime prostitute, Ava Gardner Johnson, and ABW (a black woman) waiting for a bus to Atlanta just before the Muhammad Ali-Jerry Quarry fight in 1970. Ava has been a pro since she was very young, and a pimp named Tony hooked her up with another shady lady named Sherry. Ava's trying to make the practical best of bad luck, seeing as how the only job for a black woman is "slinging pussy or frying hair," and she's hoping to make enough money in Atlanta to open a beauty salon. She meets up with ABW while waiting for Sherry at the station. ABW obviously is mentally disturbed but never says a word, and Ava struggles to connect with her through a running monologue about make-up, business, pleasure, men, and food. It's a genuinely funny, poignant piece, and Gina Houston's Ava is a very believable hunk of a woman's woman.

Co-directors Para Agboga and Boyd Vance obviously trusted the power and entertainment value of these scripts, providing just enough scenically to show us the apartment in Hospice and the bus station in Mecca, and they ask their actors to do little more than sit and deliver Cleage's poetic, often witty dialogue. This, along with last season's "Master Harold"... and the Boys, is the second Pro Arts production I've seen that offers Austin quality theatre at an extremely affordable price.

So where was the audience? Whenever I attend, I see droves of people at Zach, the State, and the Paramount, and while each of these venues often offers accomplished entertainment, exactly the same can be said of theatre companies and venues that, like Pro Arts, reside east of I-35. Austin likes to call itself progressive, even liberal. It's disappointing, shameful even, that claim isn't borne out in practice.

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Pearl Cleage Tonight, Pearl Cleage, Hospice, Late Bus To Mecca, Para Agboga, Boyd Vance, Andrena Galloway, Jennifer Cumberbatch, Gina Houston, Master Harold… and the boys, Pro Arts Collective

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