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ALL TOO OFTEN the difference between an uninspiring show and a good one lies in the energy a cast can muster, both individually and as a unit. If a cast has a collective feeling and the actors do their homework, the audience senses a flow that carries it along from scene to scene. Without that intangible, scenes fall flat, jokes sound stale, and productions become free-for-alls of thespian one-upmanship. Exceptions on any level are rare, particularly on the college level. This problem takes a particularly acute form at the Loeb's Mainstage Theater, a beautifully appointed but somewhat cavernous theater in which many well-intended but poorly produced shows die agonizing deaths each year. For all its visual appeal (and Mainstage shows generally feature excellent sets), a play devoid of energy simply does not work there. So it is particularly heartening to find a season-opening production that is remarkable in many ways, but for nothing so much as its exuberant energy and wit.
Wole Soyinka's The Trials of Brother Jero, produced by Black CAST and directed by Harold Scott '57, a professional brought in from the big time, is a charming, witty and thoroughly well-performed fable that would make Moliere smile. The rather abbreviated one-act play revolves around the activities of one Brother Jeroboam, a self-proclaimed prophet of the Lord and small-time religious hustler. Soyinka, a Yoruba playwright, novelist and poet who spent three years in a Nigerian prison for alleged subversion during the tragic Biafran civil war, puts broad satirical strokes and rapid-fire dialogue to clever use to parody the frailties of the human race.
The play is set in Nigeria at an indefinite time--there are references to modern nuisances such as television, yet the characters suggest a more traditional era. Brother Jero is the rough equivalent of an American storefront preacher, a "beachfront divine." His world is one of tongue-in-cheek contrasts, for like all slightly bogus religious leaders, he sees through the pretensions of his livelihood and of his enraptured flock.
Jero staves off the competition in the prophet business by giving his devotees just what they want-- old-fashioned religion, with accents on fervent prayer and self-denial: "I know they are dissatisfied, because I keep them dissatisfied!" In the meantime, he has delusions of grandeur and "a weakness for women." To his people, he remains a holy man, but to the audience, Jero is a fast-talking, joke-cracking observer of the endless silliness that is life.
Michael Russell '76 turns in an almost-too-good performance as Jero. He captivates the audience from the opening scene, and although his movements become a bit repetitive after a few scenes, he plays the role to the hilt, complete with a lilting accent suggesting the mellifluous tones of the Yoruba tongue. If Russell's movements become a bit stale, his characterization does not, and as the central conflict emerges between Jero and his henpecked assistant Chume, Russell pours it on, never losing that vital energy.
The other developed characters--there are only two, which stands as an appreciable flaw in the script--manage to keep up with Jero throughout. Deborah Adams portrays Amope, a classically shrewish woman who bitches her rather nerdy husband, Chume, to distraction and even manages to ruffle the seemingly unflappable Jero. Adams plays it just right: the piercing shrill of her voice could cause inner-ear disturbance and she cuts a very intimidating figure without descending to the level of parody. Even better is Marlon Riggs as Chume, who rants and raves hysterically with near-perfect comic timing.
The twelve-member supporting cast continually boosts the show's energy level and keeps it moving. This strategy backfires only once, in the sole disappointing scene of the show. A service led by Jero builds to a manic pitch reminiscent of William Faulkner's description of a rural black church in The Hamlet, but it is too high a note to maintain throughout the excessively long scene.
Technically, The Trials of Brother Jero is rather simple. The one set, designed by Joan Ferenchak, furnishes a classic example of how to use the Mainstage's variable space to good advantage. The structure is simple--a wooden frame shack, covered with ostensible palm fronds, along with a similarly covered proscenium arch set off by blue backlighting; but when combined with the main acting area, a sand-covered expanse in front of Jero's home/church, the intended effect is achieved. No flashy techniques distinguish the lighting scheme. Another minor criticism can be directed at the music--the same fragment of a song is heard between each and every scene as well as before the show, and by the third or fourth time this recurring theme begins to dull.
Given Scott's extensive directorial experience and his long association with the play (he played Brother Jero in the original New York production several years ago), his strong effort comes as no surprise. He can claim the distinction of conquering the Mainstage in a controlled manner. And Scott does not stop there, for after an intermission comes Shout!, a counterpoint to The Trials of Brother Jero bearing his own stamp.
In Shout!, presented with the Brother Jero cast and the Kuumba Singers, Scott offers an effective wrap-up to the lighter main attraction. Shout! is particularly worthwhile because it offers a more serious view of the role of the preacher in Black society, along with spirituals, extensions of Brother Jero, and parts of speeches by James Weldon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. Kathleen Gatson and Jacqueline Kearney especially stand out in this part of the production.
The two halves of the Black CAST show make for a somewhat short but extremely entertaining evening of theater. Most Mainstage shows are blocked as if the actors have no legs; they just enter, park and deliver their lines until their scene ends. The Trials of Brother Jero provides a joyous, valuable experience in and of itself, but it may yet serve an equally great purpose for the Mainstage theater, for this cast is nothing if not energetic and obviously committed to their show, and they have little trouble in drawing in the audience. The play runs through Saturday, and it is one of those rare shows that should not be missed. The new season has finally arrived at the Loeb, and Brother Jero kicks it off in winning form.
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