A few weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey welcomed Michael Moore, Oscar-winning director of Bowling for Columbine, onto her show. It was quite a summit. Moore’s documentary film is a compelling, if uneven, indictment of the American love of guns and the mayhem they bring at home and abroad. Moore contends that fear begets violence — fear of God, fear of death, fear of the black man. Oprah, for her part, is the Queen of Pain. She is the ultimate survivor of the heartache and abuse inflicted on many American women by men.
I mention Oprah and Moore because In Walks Mem’ry, a play by Eric Waldermar Jr. at Plowshares Theatre, comes to life at the very crossroads of their respective causes.
Zoey (Iris Farrugia) is coming home after doing a 15-year bid for murder. Her white lover wouldn’t marry her, even though she was carrying his child, so she stabbed him in the neck. We meet her as she is being led, blindfolded, by her older brother, Jess (Cameron Knight), who was left behind to tend to the family’s rural homestead after the deaths of their parents.
Once the blindfold is removed, Zoey’s gleeful anticipation quickly dissipates. Over the porch door, Jess has strung up 15 of Zoey’s beloved Barbie dolls to commemorate each year of her absence. Clearly, perhaps too clearly for the good of the play, we sense that the house holds troubling secrets.
Yessir, before long the ghost of their departed pappy (Augustus Williamson) descends the staircase, bathed in lurid red light, and holds court in a flashback on the porch he built. The man is a hulking brute of libido and bile who terrorizes his children as they grieve for their mother — who, I might add, may or may not have been killed by this monster. And this is only the first act!
Much to Zoey’s mounting chagrin, Jess is shacked up with Genevieve (Telisha Sims) and their daughter, Tyrese (Lydia Willis). Genevieve reveals to Zoey that she used to be a whore who was saved from a rape by Jess. Out of gratitude, she’s stayed with him. But things haven’t been easy. For all his surface cheer, Jess is as bad a seed as his sister. Like father like son, especially when the old man, chest puffed out and cigar clenched between his teeth, appears out of the ether to egg his boy on to new depravities.
When Williamson and Knight have the spotlight, the play is riveting. It’s easy to see how machismo and misogyny become a legacy. Zoey contends that the family is cursed, but here’s where the spell is cast. Poverty and racism are the fires roiling the cauldron.
Waldermar has written the play in a pseudo-cinematic style; the stage is constructed so that episodes take place in different rooms in sequence. While Zoey and Genevieve visit in the kitchen, Jess visits Tyrese in her bedroom. In theory, such a design could speed up the action, but director Janet Cleveland lets the play ramble on. Waldermar writes compelling dialogue. If only he wrote less of it. Economy counts when the clock is ticking on your patience.
The program warns that the play contains mature subject matter and nudity. Murder and night-tripping daddies certainly qualify. But this is old-hat. Turn on “Springer.” Turn on “Oprah” for that matter. And anyone who has read Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, a hit from the good woman’s book club, will have an uneasy sense of déjà vu. In that book, an ugly little girl from a “cursed” family falls victim to her boozy, carousing father. Her only friend mutilates white-skinned dolls.
Perhaps the similarities are inevitable. Indeed, in its most melodramatic and overwrought moments, In Walks Mem’ry feels less like a play than an allegorical compendium of the social pathologies that bedevil black America. Whatever escape or peace the characters find at the end of the play is provisional. Reckoning deferred is reckoning denied.
In Walks Mem’ry by Eric Waldermar Jr. is at Plowshares Theatre Company (in the Paul Robeson Theatre at the Northwest Activity Center, 18000 Meyers, Detroit) through April 13. Call 313-872-0279.Timothy Dugdale writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]