“A change is going to come,” as Sam Cooke once prophesied. The Banyan Theater’s current production of Phillip Hayes Dean’s “Sty of the Blind Pig” explores a time when it seemed like change would never come.
It’s the story of four African-Americans in Chicago’s South Side in the mid-1950s, just before the civil rights movement catches fire. Like Joyce’s Dubliners, they’re trapped — paralyzed by self-defeating behaviors, racial injustice and the past’s dead hand. The action unfolds in a tidy apartment surrounded by condemned buildings.
Thirty-something Alberta (Kimberly Webb) is still mourning (and questioning God) over an African-American aviator’s fiery fall from God’s heaven — the man she loved but never got around to telling. She’s an unexploded warhead of anger and sexual frustration, working a humiliating maid’s job, and taking prescribed pills to keep it together. Alberta shares the flat with her mother, Weedy (Cassandra Small), an old-school, church lady who goes by the book — the Good Book. Her brother, Doc (Alan Bomar Jones), prefers the Book of Numbers — the kind you bet on. One fine day, Blind Jordan (Ron Bobb-Semple) a wandering blues musician, knocks on the door and shakes things up. He gets close to Alberta. While Weedy is away at a religious convocation in Montgomery, Alabama, he gets very close. Meanwhile in Montgomery, there’s a bus boycott going on. Weedy prefers old-time religion to this new-fangled activism.
She takes the next train back, and catches Alberta and Blind Jordan in the act. And nothing is ever the same.
Director Mark Clayton Southers conveys this story with low-key naturalism, occasionally breaking the realism with scenes of hallucinatory intensity, like Alberta’s harrowing flashback to the dead aviator’s funeral. But, usually, the play keeps its feet on the ground. The characters invite you into their home. You can’t help but like them.
Webb puts in an amazing, very physical performance, deftly conveying Alberta’s struggle to keep her passions bottled up inside. Jones is an audience favorite as the witty, sporty, rascally Doc. The Weedy character could be a caricature (the aforementioned church lady); Small’s performance is multilayered and true to the real deal. In Bob Semple’s fine characterization, Blind Jordan is damaged goods, revealing a lifetime of hurt in his default politeness and the tentative way that he walks, moves and reacts. Great acting all around. But the story the actors told didn’t quite work for me.
Verisimilitude isn’t the problem. Dean’s characters are well-drawn and true-to-life — always a good thing in a character-centered play. The conversation has the feel of life; it doesn’t seem scripted so much as recorded. Dean has a good ear for dialect and sub-cultural references. (Doc’s use “chap” and other Southside slang; the religious pun implied in Weedy’s “I don’t have to run for office. I’ve been elected.”)
But the playwright mixed such closely observed realistic details with the mythic figure of the blind prophet.
It’s not an easy mix. In the classic, archetypal, Joseph Campbell-style narrative, the blind seer wanders in — a Tiresias with a guitar, oozing charisma, a natural man, a sexual pied piper. If Dean had followed that narrative, you’d understand why Alberta would be drawn to Blind Jordan — and why Weedy would instinctively oppose him. He draws his seductive power from the earth. Her power comes from God. They have to be at war.
I wanted that story. The playwright didn’t want to tell it. Instead of a seductive god-man, he created a broken man. Instead of a larger-than-life myth, he wrote a life-sized tale — an accurate, high-resolution vignette from a lost world destroyed by the earthquake of change to come.
That makes it all the more heartbreaking.
IF YOU GO
“The Sty of the Blind Pig” runs through Aug. 3, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-2808 or visit www.banyantheatercompany.com for more information.