The first thing you should know about Andrew Dolan’s “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” at the Atwater Village Theatre is that the title accounts for the entire presence of the great civil rights leader in this piece. This is not some conservative revisionist composition, nor a salacious historical re-scribbling comparable to the BBC’s “The Tudors”. No, this is something profoundly more interesting.
Simon Case, (Philip Casnoff), is a white sociology professor, who has taken a stumble on the fast track of academia. There was his nasty divorce followed swiftly by his wooing and wedding of Lashawna (Tracey A. Leigh), a young black student who has successfully used education as her means of escape from poverty and the inner city. Living with the happy couple is her brother Anquan (Theo Perkins), whom she has tried to guide into following in her footsteps. But unhappily his preference for sports over studies and a proclivity to disregard the property rights of others when it comes to unattended iPods has led to his suspension from college. With the arrival of two of Simon’s colleagues, Augustus (Carlos Carrasco) and his wife Janine (Judith Moreland), for cocktails at the Case home we discover that Simon too has been “tossed out” of school. His sins, it seems, have been a confrontational nature and having controversial views on that great American taboo: race. Unlike Anquan, whose transgressions are attributed to his social conditioning, Simon had an active hand in obtaining his own suspension.
“You wrote your tenure application in crayon,” scolds a colleague.
To which Simon quips, “I thought children liked primary colors.”
At loose ends during his imposed exile from the classroom, he is inspired by a casual remark of his wife to take pen in hand. The outcome of this effort is a tome that gives title to the play. Simon quickly finds a publisher and his opus in print. The resulting firestorm it stirs up is reminiscent of that which the publication of the Satanic Verses unleashed, but unlike Salman Rushdie, Simon doesn’t scurry for sanctuary behind a gated community and 24-hour police protection. Simon goes boldly forth to face down his detractors.
Playwright Dolan is most emphatically a man of the theatre; this is obvious in the choices he makes. His use of the classic device of a cocktail party to frame the play’s primary event harkens back to “Rope”, “Merrily We Roll Along”, “Company”, and…well, “The Cocktail Party” to rattle off a few.
Also, in making the character of Janine a professor of theater history who at times lectures her students, Dolan has fused two divergent elements of the stage. She functions as Bertolt Brecht’s “verfremdungseffekt” or “distancing effect” reminding us it is a play we are watching and therefore our feelings for the characters are irrelevant, what’s paramount is our consciousness of the thematic argument on stage and how we judge it. At other times Janine seems to fill the role of Greek Chorus, breaking from the classical form in addressing the audience, while still giving voice to the protagonist’s fate.
Now I have glanced at some of my fellow reviewers thoughts on this production and will acknowledge that the play has its faults. So what? Certain works are so striking that specific elements, be they shortcomings or swerves, are rendered nearly imperceptible – elements which would be impossible to put past an audience were they not spellbound by the most potent sorcery of artistry.
In film for instance, Apocalypse Now stands as a masterwork which so mesmerizes an audience that few are even conscious of Harrison Ford’s appearance in it. (Yes he is – trust me.) Magnolia is another film whose creative audacity and sweeping originality clouds the viewer’s mind to a staggering degree. You may recall that Magnolia opens with the discovery of a dead body. It is a whodunit, but one from which the director Paul Thomas Anderson exorcised the “dun”, the “who”, and the “it”. It seems this murder once served as the spine for the entire film, until the disapproval of test audiences brought about its eradication. Still the film is littered with its remnants. The opening features a young black boy, performing a rap song before police officer Jim Kurring played by John C. Reilly. What Reilly’s character is heedless of is that the lyrics reveal the identity of the killer as well as forewarns him, like a hip-hopping Maria Ouspenskaya, of the fate that awaits him. There are other chads left dangling in the film – a close up of the killer’s hand picking up Reilly’s lost service revolver for one, and Orlando Jones in the credits as “Worm”, who is absent from the film. Also absent is John C. Reilly himself, save for his voice over, from the tacked on “happy ending” with Melora Walters.
My favorite example of this phenomenon in literature is from Raymond Chandler’s classic “The Big Sleep”. The mystery begins with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe being hired by the wealthy General Sternwood to resolve his younger daughter’s gambling debts. However the stakes are raised when the Sternwood’s limo is pulled from the harbor with the chauffeur, Owen Taylor, dead inside, and Marlowe’s investigation of that murder becomes the driving force of the book.
The story is told, that when Howard Hawks was making the film version in 1946, he realized Taylor’s murder was never resolved. So he sent a cable to Chandler asking, “Who killed chauffeur?” The cable he received back from Chandler read, “Dammit, I don’t know.” You see, whenever Chandler found he’d written himself into a corner, he had a simple method for extricating himself – someone walks into the room holding a gun.
In Dolan’s “Many Mistresses” one character’s wife confides to another that she’s divorcing her husband after discovering he has a secret 14-year-old daughter. Another character who has been the very soul of charm throughout the drama is accused behind his back of having an abusive temper then appears soon thereafter and temperamentally abuses his wife. It’s brought up early in the play that Simon’s daughter is engaged to Augustus and Janine’s son. Then later in the play it’s revealed she’s underage and having sex with him. Towards the end of the work, the playwright has a character announce that he’s not an American, but an African by birth. All of these theatrical “blips” materializing on the stage’s radar spike the dramatic urgency and plunges the audience into “red alert”. Then as abruptly as they appeared they’re gone, leaving not so much as a ripple on the surface of the narrative pond.
It is Chandler’s “Deus-ex-machina-with-a-gun” sans gun. We forgive Chandler’s usage of this device, however, because he gave us superbly crafted characters and wrote like a hardboiled bard. And Dolan can be forgiven likewise because beneath all the blips, he has laid out an intelligent and masterful foundation.
It’s been said between a play’s defects and an audiences’ perception of them, a good cast can stand like a wall. And if that’s the case, Dolan has himself the Great Wall of China. Leigh, Perkins, Carrasco, Moreland and Casnoff meet the demands of the material with virtuoso performances that never once sound a false note. They are the caliber of actors that directors drool over and playwrights write Santa for at Christmas time.
On a stage populated with capable or even “good” actors, for one performer to be recognized as a “standout” requires a certain strength of talent, but still, the circus strong man seems the stronger for being among clowns and trapeze artists. But to be a standout among a cast of standouts reflects the depth of an actor’s pool of talent. Philip Casnoff possesses that kind of depth.
The play presents a rather busy stage of shifting locales and times, which director Rod Menzies glides gracefully through from beginning to end. By its nature the play would suffer under a heavy-handed director, but this mounting is a testimonial to a confident and expert caress on the part of Menzies.
Nowadays, unfortunately, you often encounter dramas in the theater which are basically half-assed, re-packaged “Movies of the Week”. “The “Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” is the polar opposite of this. This is a work of the theatre, woven with gravitas and intelligence which has found a perfect expression in the matching talents of its production. You will seldom see a more impeccable unity of material, cast and creative staff than “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King” offers, and it must be acknowledged as a feather in the bonnet of artistic director and producer Gates McFadden, and a great, huge, luminous feather at that.
The production crew has done an outstanding job in creating an environment that appeals to the audience’s sensibilities while simultaneously enticing them into the reality of the play and players. And you don’t get any better than that. They are all deserving of credit – so they’ll all get it: Tom Buderwitz (scenic design), J. Kent Inasy (lighting) John Ballinger (sound designer), Naila Aladdin Sanders (costumes), Katherine S. Hunt (properties), Rachel Manheimer (stage manager – god bless ’em!), Shaina Rosenthal (A.D.), Amanda Weier (production manager) and Laura Hill (producer).
Dolan presents a whirlwind of opinions that some perhaps would find disturbing. In one exchange between Simon and Lashawna concerning her brother and the difficulties of overcoming their social-economic background she lashes out, “You were born on third base, you didn’t hit a triple!”
There is no doubting that with the Obama era we have arrived at a new plateau. That Dolan seems devilish determined to kick at our complacency is fine by me. We need to review and reevaluate our old black and white attitudes; it will help us appreciate the vista from the height we have reached, and remind us of how much higher we have yet to scale. But I think it is a mistake to focus on Simon as someone who suffers for his opinions on the race issue. He strikes me as standing for something greater; the individual who will be heard, no matter how the world would stifle him.
In this country we have a long history of men and women who have suffered for speaking their truth: Thomas Paine, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Barney Rosset, Lenny Bruce, Daniel Ellsberg. Simon’s character for me doesn’t represent so much an ideologue, as a demand: “Just listen.”
This is Big Brain Theatre at its best (note all capitals!). I therefore suggest attending in theatre parties of your racially diverse friends with the intention of afterward gathering at some coffee house or watering hole for a post-show discussion or debate of the evening’s experience, and trust me, you’ll have plenty to discuss.
The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King Written by Andrew Dolan
Directed by Rod Menzies