With its cast of black actors in white face, Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence" must have seemed outrageous when it debuted in 1965. Now, 30 years later, director Marion McClinton bTC has pushed that outrageousness to the limit at Center Stage.
The result is an outrageously funny, biting and topical satire on race relations.
"Day of Absence" is being staged as the first and longer half of an intermission-less double bill that pits its broad humor against the intense realism of Shirley Lauro's two-person drama, "Open Admissions," directed by Tim Vasen.
The stylistic differences of the two plays reinforce the bashing of stereotypes playwright Ward was after in creating what he called a "reverse minstrel show" in "Day of Absence."
The plot of "Absence" is relatively simple. One day, the black residents mysteriously disappear from a good ole Southern town. There's no one to shine shoes or sweep streets -- the situation is so desperate, housewives are forced to cook their families' meals and diaper their babies themselves!
The humor is self-evident, but McClinton -- with the help of costume designer Constance Hoffman's clown-like get-ups, set designer Neil Patel's updated touches, and Mark Bennett's rollicking sound design -- heightens it, adding such up-to-the-minute visual references as a striking coda that suggests last month's Million Man March.
As the Mayor, Stanley Wayne Mathis is part Archie Bunker and part George Wallace, presiding from a wheelchair, with a Confederate flag for a lap robe. Clayton LeBouef, as his right-hand man, wears a Bozo-orange-colored wig, totes a series of ever-larger carpet bags, and moves with rubbery hilarity.
A TV Announcer -- the only role Ward originally assigned to a white actor -- is played by two black actresses (Ami Brabson and Linda Powell) who wear yellow bouffant wigs and compete viciously when not reciting the news in unison. Even a mere babe, helpless without its "mammy," is depicted by a black doll in white face.
You barely have time to recover from the what-am-I-laughing-at shudder that follows Ward's play when you're plunged into a no-holds-barred confrontation between a bright but under-prepared black college student and a white speech teacher in "Open Admissions," a play based on a 1970 policy that declared all New York City high school graduates eligible to attend college.
Actor Kelly Neal is powerful as the angry student who demands an education from a teacher (Robin Groves) whose best intentions are shackled by a lack of resources and time.
"Open Admissions" was chosen to launch Center Stage's Encounter Program, which will introduce thousands of students to live theater. As provocative as it is accessible, it's guaranteed to impress them with the immediacy of this ancient art form.
A final footnote. National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Alexander was expected to attend opening night of this double bill, but her visit fell victim to the government furlough of non-essential employees. It was tellingly ironic that a deadlock over government spending kept her from seeing "Open Admissions," a play that makes a passionate case for the necessity of funding such social programs as educational outreach.
'Day of Absence,' 'Open Admissions'
Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Dec. 20. Through Dec. 23
Call: (410) 332-0033