Local playwright Ron Allen writes in his latest press release, "The Aboriginal Treatment Center is an examination of the archetypal black man's mind," and, judging by the manner in which his acting troupe, the Thick Knot Rhythm Ensemble, takes on this complex concept, examination is one part pensive contemplation and one part unabashed exhibitionism.
The title is perhaps the audience's first indication that Allen a playwright who writes dialogue with a poet's bent is lampooning the concept of archetype itself. His agenda is evident in the casting: For starters, the play's "archetypal black man," Tyrone Smith, is played by a woman (Walonda Lewis). Off-putting at first, this casting decision injects an important irony into the perceived notion of manhood that Allen takes on as his subject.
The play challenges other expectations. A churlish white man (Bryan Spangler) dressed in a judge's robe is ensconced on a riser at the rear of the stage throughout the entirety of the production. Scene after scene, the judge sucks haughtily on a cigar, chiding Smith in an exaggerated Southern drawl. The figure appears to represent yet another construct: the psychological ubiquity of white America's authority. The judge's perch a chair so oversized that he is able to pace back and forth (and occasionally strikes Madonna-style poses) on the seat dwarfs and renders him comical, even childlike. The spectacle is decidedly less David Duke and more Lewis Carroll.
Hypnotic rhythms intrude on the action and sometimes stir the performers to dance. Seemingly random images and epigrams appear on a screen situated atop the judge's roost.
In scene three, Smith is being interviewed by a member of the media. He has been accused of "killing America."
Interviewer: So, you killed America. How do you feel about that?
Smith: I shot him with intuition, hard-edged poetry (ha, ha, ha), subliminal sex, a water gun, a 22, a 30-ought-6, AK47 and madness, clock you dig.
Interviewer: Next you gonna say it was that victim shit.
Smith: I shot with jazz. Shot dead with Dolphy. He trembled then he died right there on the floor, bleeding videos. Bled a whole goddman mall right out his ass.
Interviewer: You think you are clever, don't you?
Smith: You just don't know if I'm real or not, horrible or just tired. I was dancin'. He couldn't stand it. I shot him with funk. I shot him with faggots, niggers and shit.
Little can be said of the plot. It's negligible. The storyline consists of disjointed dream sequences with little narrative trajectory.
A dining table, representing Smith's place of employment, remains on stage throughout, although it's used only briefly at the start of the play; the table and the judge atop his giant chair are the only conceptual anchors as Smith drifts from situation to situation. He verbally spars with the judge over his mop bucket. He exchanges memories and coarse gestures with the apparition of his first girlfriend. He scandalizes an uptight Oprah Winfrey clone with boorish innuendo. He gets drunk on cheap wine while speeding through the city with his boys. Out of nowhere, the entire troupe joins him in a round of "Amazing Grace." Finally, a besotted Smith desperately attempts to weasel his way out of paying rent. And just when the climax seems imminent, the actors cast off their roles and confront the audience without metaphor: They say, "You thought it was just art."
Confusing? Sure, a little. But the lack of narrative and superb directing of Sandra D. Hines serves Allen's purposes well a linear exposition would have undermined the "you are not here" atmosphere that saturates the production.
Coherent plot or not, the performances of all five members of the Thick Knot Rhythm Ensemble are outstanding. Lewis, successfully affecting the bark and bearing of a Chris Rock-type, strikes a balance between sincerity and wink-and-nod satire that makes the protagonist a hugely entertaining character. Spangler's judge is suitably smug and ridiculous. Madelyn Porter gives a standout performance, shuffling between a variety of roles and delivering some of the most engaging jive poetry monologues. Actor Terese Blanco likewise adopts various guises, from vamp to obsequious production assistant to grating housewife. The physically imposing David Syfax incarnates Smith's "better judgment" and delivers one of the production's most essential lines: "Tyrone, this is your conscience and I'm sick of your ass."
True to Allen's intentions, The Aboriginal Treatment Center does indeed mine "the black male experience in America," but does so in a way that eschews archetype rather than examines it. "I do believe," the playwright confides in the program, "that through the appropriate experience of spoken and written language a person can undergo a profound sense of liberation which can in turn enable wellness and spirituality." This liberation begins with the subversion of monolithic cultural constructions: Allen implicates gender roles and race relations before ultimately calling into question the relationship between art and audience.
8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m., Sundays until July 2. At the Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St., Detroit. Call 734-576-6547 for tickets. $20.George Papanikos is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]