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No Escaping from the Past

Edythe Jason as Maumau.

“Daughters of the Mock”
May 24 – June 10, 2017
Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place
Presented by the Negro Ensemble Company
Wed. – Sat.@ 7PM, Sun. 5/28@ 3PM &6PM; Sat. 6/3@ 2PM; Sat. 6/10@ 9 PM
Gen Adm. $25; students, seniors, groups $20
Box Office: 866-811-4111, www.necinc.org Group sales: 212-582-5860
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett May 25, 2017

In a season of revivals of early landmark productions “celebrating 50 years of theatre excellence,” the Negro Ensemble Company under the artistic leadership of Charles Weldon, is performing once again in its original neighborhood of St. Marks. Theatre 80 St. Marks, owned and operated by Lorcan Otway, has opened its doors to this venerable company that was started in the 1960s by Douglas Turner Ward, a pioneer of African American theatre, whose first home was in the (no longer existing) St. Marks Playhouse upstairs at 133 Second Avenue. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s the East Village was a hotbed of progressive theater and jazz; avant-garde European theater, new music in a fusion of jazz and modern idiom, happenings, and radical Black theatre and poetry found homes in the small venues around St. Marks and the Bowery. Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, poet Allan Ginsberg, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman are some of the ghosts that inhabit the area. Theatre 80 St. Marks still honors this remarkable cultural history of New York City. Lorcan Otway is “proud and honored to host and welcome back the Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. to the street upon which they changed the face of New York theater.” This context is important to remember as one revisits NEC’s season of revivals.

L-R: Brenda Crawley, Edythe Jason (behind), Kristin Dodson (front, center), Claudia Nell McCoy.

Playwright Judi Ann Mason (1955-2009) was one of the first African-American women sit-com writers for TV (“Good Times”, “Sanford”, “Beverly Hills 90210” and more.) She wrote her first play, a comedy, “Livin’ Fat” at age 19 while still in college; in 1976 it was produced Off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company. She wrote 37 plays. Her life was cut short at age 54 by a ruptured aorta. Her play “Daughters of the Mock,” first produced by NEC, Inc. at St. Marks Playhouse in 1978, takes us back to her roots in Louisiana’s cotton and sugarcane country, a place that is inhabited by different ghosts—those of slavery and its dehumanizing effects on generations of black women and men. Slavery’s tragic effects on black male-female relationships resulted in dysfunctional families held together tenuously by generations of strong women, often without men. In the play, three generations of women are controlled by Maumau, the grandmother who bears the curse of “the mock” and knows how to control and inflict it upon her daughter and granddaughters. Maumau’s power of “the mock” rests in her knowledge and manipulation of vodou. The playwright used the folkloric element of vodou as a theatrical device by which to uncover a deeper sense of fateful entanglements. She crafted a play that approximates the dimensions of a Greek tragedy but also infused it with 1970s black feminist sensibilities. Her language oscillates between poetic ritual and realistic discourse. It demands from the actors the ability to switch from the quotidian to surreal moments of otherworldly possession. Medea’s rage percolates somewhere deep in Maumau’s psyche and gives her uncanny power over her daughter and granddaughters.

Brenda Crawley (L) as Oralia and Claudia Nell McCoy (R) as Maneda.

Denise Yvonne Dowse directed a well-paced production in which the actors could fully explore the emotional range of their characters. Maumau, played by Edythe Jason with a strange fierce elegance, unleashes the vodou energy upon her daughter and granddaughters with an incredible intensity but also manages to affect a deep connection to them—her firm intention to protect them from harm is based in her own tragedy. Her daughter, Maneda, appears to be quite content in her success as an independent woman who does not have to answer to a man anymore. Brenda Crawley plays her as an imposing figure but her vulnerability is close to the surface. The most challenging character to act is her daughter Maneda, who is the most hurt by “the mock.” Claudia Nell McCoy plays her ever-present emotional pain and her fear with empathic strength. The younger sister, Amanita, who tries to break free from this family of women by intending to marry, is played by Kristin Dodson with all the charming sass of a young black girl rebel until she is forced to succumb to the mock—and that is where I sensed the real tragedy of these women: the legacy of black women’s suffering becomes an inescapable deadly web that entangles generation after generation. And yet despite her harsh feminist perspective of the 1970s, Ms. Mason seems to question the validity of this relentless anti-male attitude as a way of life. She includes one other young woman, Oralia’s friend Gail, played by Lynne Michelle as a young cute gadfly, who puts all kinds of doubt into Oralia’s head about her family but who ultimately abandons her, presumably to pursue her life freely.

Amanita (Kristin Dodson) learns from her best friend Gail (Lynne Michelle) about rumors that her family carries a curse.

Patrice Andrew Davidson designed a comfortable home with art on the walls, executed by Chris Cumberbatch—most notable is the portrait of a beautiful young laughing black woman on the center wall in the background, a stark contrast to the play enacted in front of it which is no laughing matter. The warm lighting by Melody A. Beal gives the feel of a Southern climate. Ali Turns dressed the women in modern simple clothes—at some point Amanita and Maneda are dressed almost identical to indicate their commonality. Maumau’s handsome exotic dresses waft about her and give her the slightly otherworldly quality as befits a vodou priestess. Sound design by Jacqui Anscombe includes subtle drumming effects to underscore the vodou ritual. The pre-show selections are suggestive of the period, place, and motifs in the play, e.g. Nina Simone’s “I put a spell on you…” and other heavy delta blues.

While vodou has often been misrepresented in popular culture, in part because of racist fears, the actual religion is an amalgam of West African, Catholic, and Caribbean strains. According to Saumya Arya Haas, a student of religion who hails from New Orleans, vodou has traditionally functioned as a way “to connect a community spiritually in order to affect personal transformation” and empower the individual in the visible world by evoking the power of the invisible. It seems to me that the playwright, Judi Ann Mason, used this idea to empower the community of black women at a time when much of the Black Power movement had been dominated by men. Forty years later it is worth reflecting on the trajectory of black women and their influence on African-American society and American culture at-large. Come down to the East Village and Theatre 80 at St. Marks!

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