By Charles Brousse
AlterTheater, Marin’s very own theatrical “little engine that could,” has done it again! With the world premiere production of Michelle Carter’s Rose in America, the company takes another important step toward achieving the broad recognition for developing new work that it has sought since being founded on a proverbial shoestring budget back in 2004. I caught up with Carter’s play on the final weekend of its debut run at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop Theater. This coming weekend and next, it moves to a San Rafael storefront, the group’s usual territory. If you have a free evening, don’t miss it.
In many respects, Rose can be compared to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which had similar humble beginnings. Both plays have a loose, non-linear style. Both contain a variety of memorable characters that represent this country’s incredible diversity. Both address how the resulting divisions impact our social, political and cultural fabric—Kushner as it existed during the ’50s McCarthy era, and Carter as they manifest in our own times where there are new fractures that are even wider and more prevalent than before.
Rose opens with three participants—Kemi, Tisha and Anthony (no last names are provided for anyone in the play)—in a grad school playwriting colloquium discussing how they will present their revisionist concept of a 50-year-old drama entitled Rose in the Jungle, that told the story of how Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist, traveled to the South to help in the struggle against racial segregation, only to be killed by an anti-integration extremist who saw her riding in a car seated next to a black man. Its message that Liuzzo was a martyr whose death was a key element enabling African-Americans to throw off the yoke of white supremacy resonated among liberal Northern audiences, gave the play and its author—identified only as “Wally”—a brief popularity that is now lost in time.
Liuzzo was a real person and she was murdered, but the play about her and everything else flows from Carter’s imagination. It’s the kind of exercise that occurs in graduate literary classrooms every day, but for audiences it can be puzzling. Since the colloquium members are imaginary to us, are we the real students looking at people and events that are three layers away from our own reality? Fascinating.
Setting that issue aside, here’s what happens. Kemi (a rollicking young gay man expertly portrayed by AeJay Mitchell) and Tisha (a forceful, attractive Nkechi Emeruwa) enthusiastically debate how they can deconstruct Wally’s play along post-modernist lines. Anthony (a fiery Dorian Lockett) doesn’t buy it. He’s 47, a lot older than the others. He’s experienced life as a lower-class black man, while the others come from privileged backgrounds. Rather than dissect Wally’s play using the fancy terminology of postmodern academia, he wants to puncture the myth of the white emancipator who guides her children toward the justice they actually achieved through their own efforts.
This theme continues throughout the remainder of Carter’s play as the trio discovers that “Wally,” grizzly and curmudgeonly as only a disillusioned old gay man can be (Charles Dean, in a perfect role for this Bay Area favorite), is still alive and must give his permission for their revision to be performed. That sets the stage for some lively interaction between Wally, his retired live-in lover Jack (a solid John Patrick Moore) and the would-be student producers who want to resurrect his forgotten play, but with a very different orientation.
Although perfectly cast and directed with a sure hand by Regina Fields, Rose in America has a few problems—among them an overly lengthy first scene and a startlingly abrupt and unsatisfying ending—but it holds exceptional promise for both the playwright and AlterTheater. While the company still runs on a tiny budget and performs in odd free spaces, its play development program has now received support from prestigious partners like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Zellerbach Family Foundation and the Fleishacker Foundation. I predict more good things lie ahead.
NOW PLAYING Rose in America runs through July 3 at 1554 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-2787; altertheater.org.