Opening the season at the Alleyway Theatre downtown is Michael Bettencourt's two-hour drama A Question of Color. While the acting, directing, and design are superb, the script at times leaves the audience wondering.
Color is the tale of a white man and black woman in North Carolina during the early part of the 20th century, when interracial marriage was a crime. After John (Andres Michalski) and Susan (Maisha Azadi Davis) first meet in the play's second scene, the audience watches them proceed through their time together. They encounter Aunt Becky (Pat Armstrong), who helps the young couple set up a household and finally wills them her land.
Audiences might be apprehensive about viewing the play at first. The subject matter suggests a script filled with preaching and the denouncing of racism, which is standard but hardly thought-provoking fare for most modern plays that promise to tackle the complicated issues involved in racial divisions.
But a few minutes into the production, one can see that while questions of race and equality do arise in the play, they are used primarily as a backdrop for a love story that doesn't depend on race at all. With the exception of one or two moments, the races of Bettencourt's protagonists are not motivating factors for much of their behavior.
The acting in this production was brilliant and subtle, especially on the parts of Davis and Armstrong. Davis' portrayal of Susan is fiery and intelligent, and the audience's sympathy is fully on her side. Armstrong's acting ensures that Aunt Becky, a preacher who refuses to let her race and gender prevent her from spreading God's word, remains realistic. She never allows her character to descend into stereotype.
However, with the exception of John, all the white characters in the play are definitely portrayed as degenerates -- drunks, sodomites seeking to force their attentions on John, or rapists. While Susan and Becky are portrayed as strong, independent women, Betsy Bittar's Mrs. Goforth is cold and dependant upon her husband.
For a play that, early on, does not shy away from presenting controversial subjects (racism, rape, and miscarriage, to name a few), the ending of A Question of Color becomes jumbled and rambling, without real focus.
This was probably due to the role of Bolling, normally played by Dean Goff, being assumed at the performance by David Hallat (who also plays Grier and Mr. Goforth). Since Hallat played three characters instead of two, the distinctions between them were difficult to determine. But the play also draws inspiration from Bettencourt's work with Sara Beattie, on whose memoir the play is based. Because real life does not wrap up as neatly as drama, it is clear that part of the play's flaws may lie in the material itself.
Some of the dialogue in A Question of Color seems almost lyrical -- a conscious effort on Bettencourt's part to make the play seem more like a myth or fable.
"Theatre takes us to places that we normally do not inhabit during our day-to-day life," Bettencourt said. "By elevating the language, yet grounding the play in every-day life, I wanted to bring it some of that mystical feeling that comes from reading fables or tales."
This is an appropriate choice, considering how deeply the mythology of America's slavery period has sunk into our national consciousness. Even though the play itself is set in 1907, the decision to use dialogue that mirrored philosophical poetry enriched with artful metaphor makes it easier for an audience to relate to in terms of present tense.
As a season opener, A Question of Color exemplifies all that is good about the Alleyway. Their commitment to producing new scripts, and working closely with playwrights on their work, helps to ensure that new and sometimes experimental drama that will continue to flourish in Buffalo.
Whether you go by car or by subway from South Campus, A Question of Color is definitely worth seeing.
© The Spectrum 2002