NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS, NO DOGS

NEW YORK A Primary Stages presentation of a play in two acts by John Henry Redwood. Directed by Israel Hicks. Set, Michael Brown; costumes, Christine Field; lighting, Ann G. Wrightson; sound, Eileen Tague; production stage manager, Gretchen Knowlton; stage manager, Pamela Brusoski. Opened April 2, 2001. Reviewed March 28. Running time: 2 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Matoka Cheeks …. Charis M. Wilson

Aunt Cora …. Rayme Cornell

Mattie Cheeks …. Elizabeth Van Dyke

Rawls Cheeks …. Marcus Naylor

Yaveni Aaronsohn …. Jack Aaron

Joyce Cheeks …. Adrienne Carter

Actress and playwright achieve a perfect marriage in the brutally but aptly titled “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs,” set in rural North Carolina in the late 1940s. John Henry Redwood’s play presents a challenge for Elizabeth Van Dyke. She must convince a modern audience that her Mattie Cheeks could give birth to a white man’s child and not tell her husband, Rawls, that she has been raped. If Mattie tells Rawls the truth, she rightfully fears, he will go on a vengeful rampage that will leave him hanging from a tree.

As soon as she steps onstage, the remarkable Van Dyke exudes a steady authoritarian intelligence that is seemingly out of place on a cinder-block-supported porch that signals the tragedy of her situation long before she is violated by a white man. The none-too-perceptive Rawls (Marcus Naylor) adores but will never understand her; it is no surprise when he abandons the family in act two.

Their two daughters are the rebellious, teenage Joyce (Adrienne Carter), whose edges have not yet been smoothed away by years of accommodation in the face of prejudice, and the younger, still-pliant Matoka (Charis M. Wilson).

In the play’s most powerful scene, Joyce wrangles out from under her mother’s control as soon as her discovery of the rape presents an opening. Mattie’s tragedy also drives away her husband: Her actions spared Rawls his life, but she loses him as a husband.

Redwood is at his best when creating those strong, emotional currents that never surface but run deep around the peripheries of his characters’ experiences. He achieved that beautifully with the contentious relationship of two middle-aged sisters in his earlier play “The Old Settler.” He repeats that accomplishment, again with an intense family unit, in “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs.” Redwood makes complete dramatic sense of the unspoken, emotional loose ends that characterize even the most functional of families.

Where he occasionally strikes a false note is when the play leaves Mattie’s immediate nest and goes for the big effect. The character of Aunt Cora (Rayme Cornell), a spectral figure in black veil who roams the stage, never really emerges as anything other than a dramatic device. Aunt Cora’s desperate encounter with a white man, years earlier, too closely parallels Mattie’s violation.

More problematic is the character of Yaveni Aaronsohn (Jack Aaron), a frequent visitor to the Cheeks’ house. Early on, Yaveni announces, “I’m doing an independent comparative study of the similarities in racial suffering between Negroes and Jews.”

Oh boy. Since it’s 1949 and he’s Jewish and of a certain age, we have only to wait for his catalogue of atrocities — pogroms in Russia, the flight from Munich and road signs that read “no niggers, no Jews, no dogs” in the deep South, where he passes as a goy until news of Kristallnacht leads him to tell his wife and friends the truth.

Obviously the townsfolk never saw a Sam Jaffe movie; Aaron’s performance is right out of Central Casting. Redwood gives him a Big Speech, which puts a hole right in the middle of act two. Because so much fine, intuitive writing has preceded it, the play manages to recover for a harrowing climax presenting the thesis that a well-timed murder can produce much happiness in the end.

Israel Hicks’ direction accentuates Redwood’s strengths (the Cheeks ensemble) and his weaknesses (the two subsidiary roles). It might help if the Aaronsohn character were played against type, and if costume designer Christine Field had come up with a slightly less extravagant lace number for the wandering Aunt Cora.

Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting and Michael Brown’s lovely set design effectively expand the cramped stage to indicate a deep woods surrounding the Cheeks home. Perhaps the pastel color and the translucency of the shack’s scrim walls are a little too lovely for this story. But then, Mattie does create an oasis of tranquillity for her family until the storm arrives.

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