Courting Success

From the stage of Phoenix College's John Paul Theatre, the Black Theatre Troupe has scored another triumph. The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae is a smartly executed, vividly written political satire full of sharp performances. It's a morality play that's never preachy; a black history lesson that's never dull.

Karani Marcia Leslie (a former television writer) has upended a TV cliché, the courtroom drama, and transformed it into a setting for a commentary on black cultural heritage. On trial are two stereotypes of African-American womanhood: the meek, subservient mammy and the slutty, master-pleasing slave. The plaintiff is Victoria, an upwardly mobile television producer who charges that the presence of these two characters in Hollywood films is holding her back in the white, male-dominated corporate world.

A succession of witnesses testify in this imaginary court of law: an unscrupulous black film producer, a sold-out screenwriter, a white slave owner, and Mammy and Safreeta themselves. Ultimately, it's Victoria's self-loathing and her lack of insight into her heritage that are on trial here, but the real huzzah comes with Mammy's startling revelation in the story's final moments.

The author conveys the impact of slavery with subtle turns of phrase and suitably unsubtle testimonies from American history. It's gratifying that Leslie resists the temptation of ending Act One with a phony court recess; instead, the act closes with Victoria's impassioned speech about how she's been oppressed. It's an extraordinary moment -- and the first indication of the depth of Toni Robinson's performance.

Rico Burton is letter-perfect as an imperious defense attorney; her dressing down of the shady Hollywood exec received a spontaneous ovation the night I was there. Kwane Vedrene plays several roles, among them a white slave owner and his wife, each with chilling effect. And Iris Huey's Safreeta Mae is alight with contempt and anger.

We have to wait until Act Two for another of Joyce Gittoes' superb performances, but it's worth every moment. Her fiery 11th-hour speech about her true identity, and the comic asides that precede it, are proof that she's an actress of many talents.

The Trial is a complicated show, and director David J. Hemphill finesses the program's numerous video clips (from Gone with the Wind and Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, projected on a scrim above the stage) and sound and light clues with great style. Michael J. Eddy's crafty lighting design sets various moods in Thom Gilseth's striking courtroom, anchored by a judge's stand that's like the bow of a great ark. And Carol Simmons provides costume designs that quickly define each character before she utters a word.

When they do speak, the people of The Trial are pleading to be remembered; as Mammy tells Victoria, "We didn't endure so you could spit in our faces." And when, in its final moments, the story is flooded with light and the sails of long-retired slave ships, that message of endurance is hard to deny.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela