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Toe-Tapping and Thought-Provoking 

We're used to red at Christmas time. But not the kind with a hammer and sickle attached. Director Ty Tracy, as though to prove he still has a few tricks up his ageless sleeve, has given us an unusual Christmas gift: the New Orleans (and probably regional) premiere of Kander and Ebb's first effort, Flora the Red Menace.

The play is set during the Depression -- invoked with a tuneful lament, "Somebody please give me a job." Flora (the delightful Gabrielle Porter) is an aspiring commercial artist. She's got charm and moxie to spare -- and, like any self respecting '30s heroine -- a winning way with a wisecrack. In a song about tedious job applications, she responds to "Reason for applying for this position?" with "It got so boring in the penthouse!"

Well, this little life-force has a studio and rents out spaces in it to "her family" -- a diverse group of folks that includes a couple of aspiring dancers (Jason Clement and Katie Mann), a dress maker (Erica Langhoff), a musician (Jeremy Reese) and a elderly jeweler (Terrell Robinson). "Rents out" is a loose term at best, since the family is usually as hard up as Flora herself.

Flora meets and falls in love with a shy, stammering fellow artist named Harry (Bryan Wagar). She "rents" the penniless Harry a space in her studio for the price of an apple. Harry, who is appalled at the poverty and despair around him, awakens Flora's social conscience. Unfortunately, he believes the ills of the world will be solved by Marxism, and he is a true believer of the Communist Party, of which he is a devoted member. He cajoles and browbeats Flora into joining. Her sly dress maker friend sees less lofty motivations: "Dollars to donuts, you're going to get an earful of free love."

A bitter romantic competition sets up between Flora and the local party chief (Melissa Young), a fire-breather whose motto is "You must do more!" and who lists among her day's accomplishments: "I called a man a fascist and bit his daughter's leg!" At last Flora faces a crisis. Her own sense of right and wrong goes directly counter to party discipline. She is encouraged to follow her inner voice by the jeweler -- an ex-communist himself -- in a hilarious paean to individuality: "You are you! You are not someone else! You are you!"

As you can see from the lyrics I've quoted, Flora has an abundance of songs that sparkle with wit and invention. The young cast (in which I include, of course, the versatile Terrell Robinson) do themselves proud. Phil Wagar's set is dominated by a striking and effective Industrial Age mural. All in all, a pleasant little romp in the best NORD tradition.

Flora is a treat, in part, because it is rarely seen. James Baldwin's The Amen Corner, on the other hand, has a secure place in the modern African-American canon. What made the recent production at Ethiopian Theater noteworthy was the truthfulness and intensity of the performances.

Under Jomo Kenyatta-Bean's direction, a well-matched and poised cast brought to life the story of Sister Margarite, the pastor of a small black church in the 1960s. The play follows Margarite's downfall, both from dominance in the pulpit and from her high-flown refusal to accept human weakness or admit her own imperfect humanity.

Baldwin turns an unflinching, but compassionate gaze on his characters. The congregation members resent Sister Margarite's domineering, judgmental manner. They sense unresolved personal problems beneath her severity. On the other hand, there is an admixture of backbiting, envy and ambition behind their hostility as well.

Margarite's personal problems come home to roost, in the form of her estranged husband, Luke, a musician who left the family. He has returned in an attempt to connect with his grown son. Luke is deathly ill and must be put up in Sister Margarite's back room. A family drama of sorrowful reconciliation plays itself out, while the cabal in the church deposes Margarite as pastor of the church.

In the lead role, Dorshena Pittman gave us a fascinating study of a strong-willed, exceptional woman, who has withdrawn from unbearable pain into a refuge of severe piety. Corey Cantrell, as her son David, showed us a sensitive, troubled boy, who loves his mother deeply but needs just as deeply to escape her. Jomo-Kenyatta Bean was sympathetic as the dying musician father. Shavella Williams, Arcola Sutton, Andrea El-Mansura, Floyd Bean and Andrea Hampton created a believable world of intrigues, loyalties and betrayals within the confines of a small, impoverished, devout group of churchgoers.

This was a moving and thought-provoking show.

click to enlarge Flora (Gabrielle Porter) Harry (Bryan Wagar) discuss communism and other passions in Ty Tracy's NORD Theatre production Flora the Red Menace.
  • Flora (Gabrielle Porter) Harry (Bryan Wagar) discuss communism and other passions in Ty Tracy's NORD Theatre production Flora the Red Menace.
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