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Poison in the 'Hood 

John O'Neal's Like Poison Ivy, recently presented at the Contemporary Arts Center, is an examination of "environmental racism." The piece was developed through a series of workshops and community involvement sessions. For this outing -- the play's official premiere -- O'Neal pulled in his longtime collaborators, director Steve Kent and composer Michael Keck. The result was a thought-provoking little show brightened from first to last by exhilarating songs and engaging performances.

After a vaguely African spiritual libation to their ancestors who suffered in slavery, the cast members introduce themselves as a set of Creole characters from Treme (plus a black college professor from Canada). They give us a history of indigo; the plant, they tell us, was known in Africa and discovered by slaves in the swamps of Louisiana. The slave owners, they tell us, learned from the slaves how to make dye from the plant, then forced the slaves to do this on a vast commercial scale. The process, which used vats of human urine, caused rashes, diseases and early death. Now, this "indigo syndrome" has returned in a modern guise as pollution and toxic wastes.

These characters then begin to act out a contemporary story about a truck driver named Big Mike, who stops his 18-wheeler in the middle of Canal Street to flirt with a lovely local lass named Maudine. Big Mike is an old-fashioned country boy from somewhere near Natchez, Miss. Impulsively, he asks Maudine to marry him. Though roundly rebuffed, he seeks her out in Treme where she lives, and wins her over.

All's well until he spends their life savings for a house on Agriculture Street. Then things start to fall apart. First of all, his beloved son, Junior, with whom Big Mike played ball, boxed, fished and did all the other traditional male-bonding activities, turns out to be gay. Big Mike can't deal with it. He chases the boy from their house. But Maudine leaves as well.

Big Mike begs her to return, promising to try and accept his son. Unfortunately, before he came out of the closet, Junior got a girl pregnant in an attempt to be the man his father wanted. The baby is showing symptoms of retardation. The Agriculture Street development, it turns out, was built on a toxic waste site. Big Mike establishes an uneasy modus vivendi with his son and they (along with Maudine) become leaders in the fight for government compensation for the Agriculture Street dwellers. Finally, Big Mike himself comes down with unspecified nervous disorders. His memory goes. He gets the palsy. He dies. His bier becomes an altar to the environmental struggle.

The play slips back, somewhat uneasily, to the initial cast of Creole characters, who light candles in memory of communities who have fought and won environmental struggles, like Convent, which defeated the Shintech plastics plant. The show ends with a second line and a rallying call to fight back against the powers-that-be.

Quite a complicated gumbo for 90 minutes of theater! What to make of it? First of all, Steve Kent's staging is excellent. With a bare stage, a few wooden cubes, and a bolt of blue cloth, he creates a marvelous series of stage pictures and keeps the show moving. Jeff Zielinski's lighting adds immeasurably to the total effect, as do Theresa Holden's costumes. The cast does a bang-up job. As Big Mike, Lloyd Joseph Martin turns in the kind of honest, nuanced performance we've come to expect. So does Troi Bechet as Maudine. (She also portrays a character named Celestine.) Bechet has matured into one of our premier vocalists (her new CD was on sale in the lobby). William O'Neal's Junior bursts with an ingratiating (if slightly untamed) energy. He throws himself into a scene, a song or a monologue with abandon. Linda Parris-Bailey plays Antoinette with ease and dominance.

The script vacillates curiously between an intimate family drama that is fictitious and a docudrama based on real events. If this makes the tone of the piece uncertain at times, it strengthens the political implications by showing us believable, flawed individuals caught in a larger problem.

There is a tendency in political theater to oversimplify in order to more effectively mobilize the audience. And one major paradox of the Agriculture Street mess has vanished from an earlier version of the play; namely former councilman Johnny Jackson, who is African American and who was (as playwright O'Neal explained after the play) not only a major player in the development, but in fact still lives there, along with his parents, because he doesn't believe the place is dangerous!

Perhaps, it would be fairer either to give up the claim to docudrama-type accuracy or else to face the fact that the real situation is not entirely black and white.

click to enlarge Playwright John O'Neal worked with several longtime collaborators for his recent presentation of his latest work, Like Poison Ivy. -
  • Playwright John O'Neal worked with several longtime collaborators for his recent presentation of his latest work, Like Poison Ivy.

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