Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
“Bleeding Kansas ” – Moxie Theatre
“Waiting to Be Invited” – Common Ground Theatre
AIRDATE: OCTOBER 24, 2008
A timely slice of history has wedged its way onto San Diego stages. At Moxie Theatre and Common Ground, it’s all about race and religion, which are on everyone’s lips this election season.
In one play, Kansas is a battleground state. Not Red vs. Blue. Just Red. Blood-red. In the mid-1850s, the Kansas Territory was so torn and tempestuous, so violent and murderous, it was dubbed “Bleeding Kansas.” And that carnage foreshadowed the Civil War to come.
Smack-damn in the middle of the country, Kansas played a pivotal role — the deciding vote for American unity or division. It was set to become a state, but would that be a free or a slave state? Abolitionists, “Free Soil” farmers and pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” took up residence and took up arms.
Playwright Kathryn Walat calls her drama “Bleeding Kansas,” and populates it with compelling characters, though they’re mostly ‘types’ representing the various factions in the conflagration. And they give us so much narrative, we feel as though we’re being primed for a strictly graded essay test when it’s all over.
But the folks at Moxie Theatre have grabbed onto the play with their usual ferocity, and their production is fierce. Unlike most American history, this story centers on two women: the tough, hardscrabble, pipe-smoking Kitty, an apolitical ‘free- soiler ’ who lost a child and just wants to start a new life. And the bright-eyed, Bible-toting Hannah Rose, a prissy Bostonian abolitionist come West to make things right. Between them are harsh landscape and rough men. Every character is aggressively defensive of a political position, and it’s a mud-slinging, gun-slinging fight to the finish. Under the detailed direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the cast is terrific, grounded by Jo Anne Glover and Jennifer Eve Thorn, strong and stalwart, as the women who make peace with each other and endure.
Powerful females are at the center of “Waiting to be Invited,” too, the freshman effort of playwright Sherry Shephard-Massat , who based her story on the real-life adventures of her grandmother. It’s 1964, the Civil Rights Act has just been passed. And four African American working-women from Atlanta are determined to test their newfound freedom, dressing up in their Sunday best and taking a bus downtown to eat at a whites-only department store lunch counter. The casual racism they encounter is especially uncanny this season; the relevance of the story was certainly not lost on director Antonio “TJ” Johnson and his capable cast. Here, too, the production outshines the play. The look, the feel, the accents, the banter, the fears and frustrations… they’re all palpably real.
Both plays show how ordinary people are affected by the cataclysmic events roiling around them. The daily news is made even more graphic when the present is viewed through the past.
The Moxie Theatre production of “Bleeding Kansas” continues through November 2 at Diversionary Theatre, in Hillcrest.
Common Ground’s “Waiting to be Invited” also runs through November 2, at the Educational Cultural Complex of San Diego.
Funding for “Pat Launer, Center Stage,” is provided by the Elaine Lipinsky Family Foundation.
©2008 PAT LAUNER