Spike Lee may be more familiar; Denzel Washington and Halle Berry are undoubtedly more bankable. And in modern literary circles, Toni Morrison's moniker might spark more interest. But Bullins, a prize-winning African-American playwright who dominated the off-Broadway stage from 1962 to 1982, is theater royalty. And The Taking of Miss Janie now onstage at the Charles Hadley Park Black Box Theatre is one of his finest works.
Set at a UCLA college party in the 1960s, Miss Janie traces the nearly impossible relationship between black radicals and white liberals. Bullins is regarded as an outspoken supporter of black power, and he penned this 90-minute play in 1972 during the height of the Black Arts Movement, which is often referred to as the artistic sister of the Black Power Movement. The work has revolution written all over it. In fact, many of the movement's key themes and ideas namely beauty, power, love, and, of course, revolution are not-so-discretely woven into the story's scathingly harsh monologues and racially stereotypical rants. However, if you think this play sounds like every other racially based plot that predictably ends up preaching a been-there-done-that life lesson about learning to love one another, think again. You are in for a surprise, so prepare yourself. Bullins means business, and no one is exempt from his in-your-face, sulfurously frank prose.
"Jews, niggers, politics, Germans, sociology, the past, drugs, men, dykes, phonies everything is bunched up together," strung-out Jewish junkie Mort Silberstein spits out during the final scenes. And that sums up the plot. Well, almost. Miss Janie traces the relationship between Monty (Reiss Gaspard), a college-educated black civil rights activist; and Janie (Erika Robel), a liberal white woman who becomes his friend.
Although this might sound relatively straightforward, it is anything but. Monty meets Janie who initially comes across as a stereotypical dumb blond at college, and his sexual interest is aroused. But Janie is somewhat naive. "I think colored people are neat," she says, giving a clue to her mental capacity. Monty invites her to a party at his place, where we meet the rest of the nine-member cast: his two roommates Rick (Matthew McCullough), a black nationalist, and Len (Kevin Johnson), a black would-be intellectual; Sharon (Dyani Batcheller), Len's Jewish girlfriend; Peggy (Christina N. Alexander) Monty's sometime girlfriend and future wife; Flossy (Carey Hart), Peggy's lusty friend; Lonnie (Nick Velkov), Janie's part-time love interest; and Mort (John Wendell), the beatnik bum.
The action in Miss Janie begins and ends with a harrowing rape scene in which Monty has his way with his formerly platonic pal Janie. Then the story flashes back to the day of the pair's first encounter and traces their subsequent friendship. It's difficult to gauge the amount of time that passes, because events jump sporadically between past and present. The only hint of a time frame is the absence or presence of Monty's Afro hairdo.
Although the plot is initially slow-moving, as the cast becomes more comfortable, it progresses at a brisk tempo and maintains a certain dramatic tension. By staging the action at a party with free-flowing booze, Bullins gives his characters the ideal excuse to speak freely. One of the most vocally candid is Rick the roommate, who refers to whites as devils and Janie as a "phony, whiny white bitch." Upon meeting her, he says: "You ain't done nothin'. You just be white, that's all."
That is not to say Rick's opinion is representative of the entire cast. On the contrary, Miss Janie is about more than the stereotypically tumultuous relationship between blacks and whites in the 1960s. And at times, it seems the playwright has tried to incorporate too much into a single sitting. When Sharon and Len marry and have a baby, we find the cast heading into a long-winded debate about God. "I have a baby who is half-black," Sharon quips, "and that is the only reality I can deal with right now. I don't care who killed Jesus."
But on the whole, the crew gives rousing performances, none more so than Hart and Alexander. During the latter part of the play, the women briefly flirt with lesbianism owing to what they describe as a lack of decent black men. "I am a liberated lesbian now," Peggy states. "Sister power is where it's at!" Robel plays a convincingly gullible Janie, and Gaspard's Monty delivers the desired amount of frustration and anger. Though Wendell gives an impassioned performance toward the end of the show, his bizarre and completely unexpected rant about everyone including spoiled Jewish princesses is oddly misplaced. Who is this guy anyway, and how does a middle-age Jewish druggie fit in with a group of young college kids?
Miss Janie offers a frank and sincere look at race relations from a slightly different vantage point. This African American Performing Arts Community Theater production brings Bullins' work to life in a professional and well-crafted manner. And it hammers home the point that no matter what creed or color, every single one of us has a devil inside.