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Passing the Torch 

This seems to be the time of passing the torch in African-American theater. At the Anthony Bean Community Theater, Artistic Director Bean has written and directed two shows that feature his acting students. Meanwhile, John O'Neal has taken a one-man performance (which he's toured around the country for decades) and tailored it to the talents of his son, William. The younger O'Neal premiered the new piece recently at the Ashé Cultural Center.

Saving Ourselves, described as a "one-act drama," starts off the program at The Anthony Bean. On a black stage, there are six black chairs arranged in two tiers. They face a small platform with a brown chair on it. This simple stage picture already suggests the conflict we are about to witness. Six young African-American men sit on the bank of the black chairs. Some of them wear suits, some wear colorful, African-looking garb. One wears a suit with a pastor's collar. In a way, these young men seem like a jury, and the brown chair facing them seems like a witness stand. As it turns out, this is metaphorically true, but the situation is weirder than an ordinary courthouse.

The show begins with a black woman (14-year-old Antoinette Green) and her child (4-year-old Tyler Felix). She is complaining that life is made more difficult by "the black males not living up their responsibilities." In fact, that problem is just what concerns the assembled young men. They are interviewing the woman as part of an effort to collect data. Things take a bizarre turn when they dismiss her, for she is blindfolded before being escorted out of the room. Next, the city police chief (20-year-old Jason Augustin) brings in "the notorious James Lewis" (20-year-old Wayne Bennett). Lewis is the top drug pusher in the country, no less! The confrontation between Lewis and the self-help organization threatens to get out of control. But the police chief has a few surprises up his sleeve. Things are not what the seem. Maybe the "brothers" are under the scrutiny of "Big Brother."

Soulville, Bean's second show, features Loretta Petit from radio station WYLD's morning show. Petit, appropriately enough, plays a radio personality, hosting a call-in show for troubled youth. The rest of the cast, ranging in age from 9 to 16, talk to her on their cell phones -- but these exchanges are also "live on the air." The youngsters seek comfort from their various dilemmas, some of which are appalling.

Soulville boasts some catchy music and spirited dancing (choreographed by 16-year-old Arieuna McGee). It's not really a play; it's sort of a theatrical tapestry, whose raison d'etre is to bring a new generation forward into the spotlights -- an endeavor that's uneven, of course, but also engaging and full of hope.

The passing of the torch at Ashé was a very different affair. John O'Neal directed his son William in an intense, two-hour long solo performance. O'Neal, the elder, premiered You Can't Judge a Book By Looking at the Cover in Atlanta in 1985. The text is credited to O'Neal and Barbara Watkins, and is based partly on stories O'Neal garnered while working with the Free Southern Theater during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the original version of the play, John O'Neal played a character called Junebug Jabbo Jones, who was a storyteller by trade.

William O'Neal, who is 28, wants to follow in his father's footsteps as a performer. He had already made a start in that direction, but a modest start. "I've only been in one play before," he told me, after the show at Ashé. Clearly, his father had worked him hard; equally clearly, William has risen to the challenge.

William is a well-built, lithe young man, with a head full of dreadlocks. He sings well and can hold an audience with an a cappella number, where he also provides the rhythmic back-up. The story he tells concerns Po' Tatum and Junebug Jones -- two Southern country dudes who end up as storytellers in cities like Chicago and New Orleans. In fact, there is an awesome array of side characters, as well, both men and women. William does a good job differentiating these others, both in voice and body language. For me, the hook about why William is telling us the story doesn't quite work. It gets a bit lost in the two-hour intricacies of Junebug and Po'. But the stories themselves are fascinating, and William certainly doesn't come off as a beginner.

click to enlarge What's next: The son (4-year-old Tyler Felix) of an African-American teen ponders his future in Anthony Bean's one-act play, Saving Ourselves.
  • What's next: The son (4-year-old Tyler Felix) of an African-American teen ponders his future in Anthony Bean's one-act play, Saving Ourselves.
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