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September 11th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Really enjoyed Indelible.  I don’t want to sound dismissive when I compare, but I found it a very real, earthy play, in the vein of August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry.  It is very odd for me, because for all the workshopping and scriptwrighting, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of one of Oatman’s works.  I don’t know what I expected, but with his ongoing obsession with Negro professors I was expecting something high-fallutin’ and “talky.”

I’ve found recently that when I see a play I’m focusing much more than I ever have on technical and structural aspects of the piece.  So, the first thing I noticed was the frame: the opening and closing are in the present framing, as it were, the play itself, the main events of which are in the past.  I think this worked very well for Mike.  At first I wasn’t sure, being overly conscious of it.  But one effect that it has is to put a certain matter-of-fact expectation on the events.  That is, it removes “suspense” (to some degree) from the piece and allows you to focus on other aspects of it.  More frankly, it was apparent early that the main character, Walter Davidson, would be dead by the end: because it was a dramatic piece, a white man was confessing, and this is America, where bad things always happen to good people.  The framing device also is a convenient way to bring the piece to a conclusion that not only works, but is highly satisfactory to the audience: giving them a sense of where they started, what they went through, and where they have arrived.  I found the framing device worked well, as well, in the way Smith chose to stage it: planting two voices in the back corners of the audience to counter the voice below on stage.  The only thing that I found disappointing, in a way, was the silence at the end.  That is, the outraged black voices of the arrested marchers (what’s a white man doing here?) were replaced by the ignorant white voice of a cop (so, you’re the crazy white man).  I can see this as effective, to a degree, in shining a light on the similarity between the “present” day ignorance of both races when it comes to their still judging others based on appearances and shallow criteria; but I would have liked to have heard from those black voices again.  I don’t know what I would have wanted them to say, though.

The play moves very quickly into the frame and we learn all about Walter Davidson and Doleda and Festus Watkins.  I found the character development and interactions highly believable and very adeptly handled.  I think Oatman did a terrific job with them all around.  These were living people, and you could smell their sweat and feel their heart beats, taste what they ate for dinner, and know what the slept, tossed-and-turned about, and what they dreamt at night.  I think great credit is owed Mike on that alone, for it is very difficult to create characters who so really breathe and live.  I think, I believe, that Mike has probably carved one of his finest characters in Doleda Watkins.  I feel foolish saying this, having no real familiarity with his other works; but she was very delicately drawn, passionately presented, and was the heart-wrenching linchpin of the piece.  Mike also clearly hit the target audience with her, as the women in the audience went fairly nuts about several of her lines (the big one being, and I don’t have it exactly, when you say “woman” it should come off like “pearls from your tongue”).  I think Mike knew his mother would be watching this one and gave her credit through this character.  I had some minor issues with the character of Festus.  There were a few places where he seemed to me to be talking over his head.  My daughter is only 21 months, so I can’t claim to have deep and meaningful conversations with her yet; that is to say, I don’t know what she will be like at 7 or 9 or 11 and what she will be capable of thinking.  Perhaps she will be capable of the philosophical ruminations that Festus was delivering, but it struck me enough to mentally note it, and move me out of the play’s experience.  I think more so in the very first scene between Festus and Walter; than the later scene between Festus and Amassa Delano—but even there Festus brightly jumps to conclusion that Amassa is going to hurt Walter and in the end (almost romantically or poetically) says nothing about it.  It may be that Festus is supposed to represent a generation that was silent in some way about what it saw? (As opposed to the generation after, which would have marched, fought, and became the Civil Rights movement—but, I may be reading too much into this.) I found the exposition regarding how the paper system worked between Walter and ‘Bama a bit much.  It was also difficult to hear on some occasions, (which added to the frustration of involved discussions such as this) and I’m not sure what was the source of this: whether the words didn’t role-off mellifluously enough, whether there were issues with the space echoing, or whether it was an issue of pacing—i.e. trying say too much too fast. Finally, I found the relationship between William Rochester III and Doleda to be too much to believe.  I can see why it is there.  I can see clearly how it works in the structure for Mike.  I don’t know if there is a way to soften it, or otherwise dilute this.  The only thing that I can think would be to remove the open suggestion of intimacy between them and make it more intellectual or impersonal.  But that removes the emotion and it also lessons the comparison between Rochester and Davidson in terms of manhood and responsibility, which I think is one of the central points that Mike is making.  It is a very sticky issue.  I see clearly why Mike has done it, and I think it is effective—especially, again, for someone who isn’t looking at the play for elements like this, but is just enjoying the work for what is says and how it says it.  But to me, it did stand out and momentarily threw me out of the experience of the play.

There were also some moments of language that perhaps need examining.  At one point a character says “whoop his ass” or something.  It is the discussion of Jack Johnson. I marked the phrase and didn’t know if it was something someone would say in 1930. And another was “a pretty short drive” or something. But, these things could have been said, and I may be mistaken.  It is tough to pay attention to all of these details as I discovered in my play The Empiric: trying to figure out or imagine how people talked in a time that is well-removed from your own is challenging—especially the idioms.

I don’t want to come off as too critical or smack of a sort of nitpickiness.  I think Indelible is a tremendous work: great characters, strong emotion, well-researched, and a real earthiness and power that I would kill to feel coming out of some of my plays.  I think Mike has done a wonderful job with this piece and I look forward to seeing more of his work.  I also wonder if there has been any consideration of expanding this piece just a bit and making it a “full evening of theatre.”  It is a long enough one act that the move is not that much, I think. That is, adding an intermission and a two act structure.  I think it could be done; and it would make the play more marketable.  A move like this would challenge the “frame” structure, I think.  But it could be offset in a powerful way by adding a scene in the middle to heighten the success or achievement (paper) or tension or love (Doleda)—in fact, much of it is already there to be pulled out; and then bring it all to a devastating conclusion—sort of the Greek thing with the Hamartia or tragic-flaw in the character—Davidson’s hubris or prideful sense of injustice and the Peripeteia (reversal)—where everything suddenly goes to hell, like right now.  The achievement is undermined by the boldness of the action in a corrupt society.  Of course, Mike may have captured exactly what he wants from the piece and it is just the way it will be; and that’s fine too.

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