KPBS AIRDATE: March 15, 1995
Two African-American couples moved into San Diego last week — and boy, have they got problems. The past won’t leave them alone. “Porgy and Bess” are just about destroyed by it. “Puddin ‘n Pete” are struggling to survive. One couple’s battle is substance abuse; the other’s is child abuse. And yet both plays end on a note of hope.
It’s a platinum anniversary for “Porgy and Bess.” Seventy-five years ago, the most popular opera ever written by an American composer — George Gershwin — opened in New York. The new, impressive revival that made a brief stop at the Civic Theatre was a collaborative triumph — the work of ten opera companies nationwide, including the San Diego Opera. The result is beautiful to look at and listen to, if not crystal clear in term of lyrics or emotional impact.
Set in Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina, this is the tragic tale of the crippled beggar Porgy and the wanton, cocaine-addicted Bess. The drug-side is highlighted, making the opera more topical than ever. The lead singers are magnificent. The only disappointment was Sportin’ Life, the snaky, slithery dope dealer who keeps comin’ ‘round to wreak havoc — and to sing unforgettable songs like “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” His charisma should be show-stopping; it was barely noticeable. But otherwise, this was a high-powered, high-energy production of a beautifully bittersweet story.
Also bittersweet, topical, and gut-wrenching at times, is Cheryl L. West’s newly rewritten “Puddin ‘n Pete: Fable of a Marriage.” You may remember West’s potent family drama, “Jar the Floor,” which shook audiences last year at the Globe. Her new piece is less realistic in some ways, a fable set in a surreal, undulating garden. But it’s very real in terms of the issues confronted in a marriage, especially a second marriage for forty-something hopefuls. Both participants carry all sorts of baggage. They’re dogged by their pasts. They try to trust, to reveal, but it isn’t easy. There are threats to the relationship from the outside and from within.
Here, all those symbols are revealed. The baggage is two huge trunks. The outside forces are embodied in a chorus of commentating couples — one white, one black. And the inner forces are represented by a Serpent, who slinks and slithers across the stage, and strikes marvelously dancerly poses, just waiting to uncoil and attack. Sometimes the symbolism gets a bit overbearing. Sometimes the 13 chapters of the fable seem redundant, and a little preachy.
Surely, the play could use some trimming. The revelation about abuse could use some toning down. But what West has created is thoroughly believable characters in a frighteningly believable relationship. Pete, the unschooled school janitor, espouses a lot of down-home wisdom. And Puddin, the upwardly mobile executive secretary, has a credible fear of letting go. Through music, hats, picture frames, dream sequences, superstitions, we see how trust can be developed and destroyed.
This production is provocative. Gilbert McCauley’s direction is imaginative, and his cast is striking. Kevin E. Jones makes Pete a likable guy who’s really trying. Elizabeth Omilami’s Puddin’ may be a bit too brittle, but she’s good. Robert Barry Fleming is a lithe and limber Serpent, and as Black Man, Jonathan Earl Peck is particularly malleable in his multiple roles.
There are profound statements being made here. Sometimes, they’re too darkly underlined or explicitly symbolized. But there’s something here for and about every relationship. That universality under the skin of the specific is what makes West a true playwright whose plays are truly important.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.