Into the Fire

One of the less familiar facets of the black experience to beexamined by playwrights is the hierarchy of skin color among blacks themselves. Although Dael Orlandersmith tackled the subject brilliantly in her Yellowman in 2002, intraracial prejudice is fresh enough to be the focus of Cassandra Medley’s melodrama about human beings warped by the systems that govern them, whether racism, sexism, or the destructive aspects of capitalism.

Zena (an elegant and well-spoken Gin Hammond) is a light-skinned black woman who, traveling on a train in the car for Negroes in 1947, is “rescued” by a white conductor, who miscontrues her race and escorts her to the car for whites. Thus Zena leaves not only her life as a black person in segregated Mississippi, but also the disdain of dark-skinned blacks for “high yellow” ones, people whose mixed race gives them a high percentage of Caucasian features, including light skin. Renaming herself Wendy, she passes for white and eventually marries Brian Syms (Michael McGlone), a working-class lug of Irish descent. Together, with the help of night school, they have pulled themselves up in society—or pushed their way into it.

A decade later, as Zena and Brian attend a Detroit auto show from their home in Fort Wayne, Ind., the socially astute wife encounters Reuben, whom she last saw as a hopeless drunk—and with whom she had twin baby girls who died of typhus. Reuben is now off the sauce and in a relationship with Pearl, a devout churchgoer whose dark skin leaves no doubt about her race.

Trapped between her two lives, one represented by a membership in a country club, and the other by a conjure woman reading bones, the discomfited Zena reflects on her journey, and flashbacks alternate with present reality (not always seamlessly). If, as Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again,” neither can you leave it behind. Or, as Sister Nicodemous, a seer whom Zena consults, says, “You can’t just scoop out what’s been bred in the bone, honey.”

Medley’s exploration of the effects of racism and miscegenation veers frequently, perhaps unavoidably, into the melodrama of Fannie Hurst’s classic novel Imitation of Life, also about “passing” for white; the playwright also touches on other injustices that limit human potential as well. There’s a strong dose of the anti-business fervor of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in the way Lloyd attempts to warp Brian’s sense of right and wrong and bribe him into silence about an automobile defect. And Brian shows a class bias that conveniently dovetails with racism. He refuses to allow Zena to polish his shoes, insisting that it’s the job of hotel employees, who, naturally, are black.

Director Victor Lirio gets very good performances from a talented cast. Ron Cephas Jones plays Reuben with alternating deep contrition and struggling decency, and Hammond shows the distress just underneath Zena’s apparent confidence, and her budding sense of sexual inequality. And he gets a go-for-broke performance from Melanie Nicholls-King as the fervent and anguished Pearl, who doubts Reuben’s attraction toward her because of her dark skin and sabotages her own chances for happiness. Indeed, Pearl has the more deeply tragic story, and that throws off the balance a bit, although finally the character’s self-loathing becomes just a tad too annoying for the play’s good.

David Newer tries to restrain the overly melodramatic aspects of Lloyd but can’t really, and it’s not entirely his fault. Medley gives him a dialogue with Brian that refers to “niggers, Mexican wetbacks, Jew boys, probably some gypsies, all working together”—and it rings false, because in 1957 people in a country-club set wouldn’t use that language while talking with a relative stranger. If Newer’s mustache were longer, he could twirl it easily to fit the character’s cardboard villainy.

Lirio stages the action simply, though occasionally sluggishly, on a large elevated white disc surrounded by a semicircular white curtain that serves as backdrop to all the scenes, but looks most accurate as a fixture at the auto show, as does a huge crystal chandelier that hovers over the stage.

Medley clearly wants to write about pressing social issues, and Diverse City Theatre Company is committed to nurturing her gifts. This is a good effort, with virtues that surpass any flaws.

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