LANGSTON HUGHES created Jess B. Simple in his newspaper column in the Chicago Defender in the 1940's. Posing behind a mantle of slow-witted stubbornness. Simple talks his way through barrooms and street corners, can of beer in hand, fashioning a glittering slice of Harlem life with his words. Hughes was fascinated with Harlem, and in Simple's tales he highlights his dreamy view of Harlem, a city-within-a-city where black culture reigns and black people share their trouble with laughter. Fiercely proud of blackness, Simple mixes an innocent wonder at the strange cruelty of the segregated world with a bitter satire of white prejudice.
Radcliffe senior June Cross's adaptation of "Simple's Uncle Sam," a collection of Simple's stories, into a play at the Loeb Ex centers on the people of Simple's world. Shifting her focus from Simple to the Harlem society he talks about. Cross has created a cast of funny, touching people from his tales. This approach unfortunately detracts from our appreciation of Simple himself, but what the play loses as the story of one man, it gains in its evocation of a black world fighting, loving and proudly separate from the whites downtown.
Cross's Simple (Stephen Cooke) is a funny, friendly man, but he lacks the brilliant wit of the Simple of Hughes's stories. He remains the thread that unites the disparate characters of the play, but pales beside the vitality of some of the other roles. Something of Simple's peculiar brand of militancy and tolerance, obstinate pride and humorous self-depreciation, is missing in this show. Cooke handles his part well, especially in the second act when more of the show centers on him, but Cross's script sacrifices some of the folk hero in her attempt to show the Harlem life around him.
Minnie Johnson (Darlene Johnson), Jess's cousin, leads this world of Harlem night life, cursing, dancing, living on what she can get from her many male friends--"He who lives there must share," Jess says of her apartment. Minnie plays her part to the full, roaring around her apartment in her torn bathrobe, yelling at the neighbors, taking drinks from willing men. She is no match for Jess's wife. Joyce (Tonya Davis), a flat character given little life in this performance Joyce is an ambiguous figure in the Simple stories: a proud member of the Arts and Letters Club, she strives constantly for "culture" (white culture) and a house in the integrated suburbs and becomes the Uncle Tom of the show. But Joyce also represents Simple's ambition of rising beyond ghetto life and his job as a clerk--the hope which makes waking up in the morning worthwhile. Neither Cross's script nor Davis's acting adequately portray this other side of Joyce, the loving wife whom Simple treasures even as he mockers her upper-class pretensions.
Lois Overton's set design, three tableaux that fit bedroom, kitchen, and bar into the small stage, moves the action smoothly around the stage, although actors occasionally wander out of their spots, and the lighting is awkward at times. The skill of John Kirkwood's direction is apparent in the timing, humor and vitality of the show, especially in the bar scenes, when a brilliant supporting cast of Harlem characters continually brings the house down. Don Gillespie as Henry, Minnie's boyfriend; Sary Guinier as Lynn Clarisse, another of Jess's cousins; and Paul Ruffins as Brandon, a drunk in the bar, are particularly fine.
"It is impossible to live in Harlem and not know at least a hundred Simples, fifty Joyces, twenty-five Zaritas, a number of Boyds, and several cousin Minnies or reasonable facsimilies thereof." Langston Hughes writes in his introduction to another collection of Simple stories, Simple's Harlem is a glimpse of the people who produced Simple; from Hughes's tales of one man's life and friends. Cross and Kirkland have created an entire world of classic characters.