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Beate Hein Bennett

"We done run out of cheeks…"
Matata and Jesse James: An American Tragedy

Photo by Ronald K. Glassman

April 6 - May 6, 2018
Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street, New York
Presented by Castillo Theatre
Thurs - Sat@ 7:30 PM, Sundays@ 2 PM
Gen. Adm. $35, students and seniors $20
Box office: 212-356-8476 www.castillo.org

With his play, author Dan Friedman touches the raw nerve of race relations in American history which has not been fully resolved yet. The Civil War (1861-1865), one of the bloodiest wars was fought over the issue of slavery and related economic priorities. Our present political and social climate has laid bare the profound racial inequities that still prevail due to unresolved racial and socioeconomic factors. American folklore is full of these motifs. However, while Black American folklore has traditionally put a sly humorous spin on living the racial experience of being a non-person, white American folklore celebrates the gun-slinging outlaw as the hero rebel who conquers his place by defying societal norms.

Dan Friedman uses this dual American tradition in his play as the basic structure and driving force by constructing a "what if" situation where the eponymous outlaw, Jesse James, is morally challenged by the ex-slave Matata. The historical context of the Civil War, as it was fought in the slave-state of Missouri, and the Reconstruction period after the Proclamation of Emancipation which freed the slaves and entitled them to own land, forms the background to the dramatic encounters between the slave family of blacksmith Matata, and the farming family of Jesse James. The James brothers fought for the Confederacy as members of William Quantrill’s Confederate guerilla band and continued after the defeat as an outlaw gang robbing banks and trains which they deemed hateful Yankee enterprises that exploited the South. Matata, by contrast, rose after the Civil War to personhood and was able to buy a farm for his family, albeit he was impeded, maligned, and threatened by his white neighboring farmers.

Scenes alternate between the James clan and the Matata family as they live through the period from 1861-1866. Each scene depicts a critical moment as conditions change and the characters have to adapt and/or confront a decision. The end of the play does not present a solution but rather shows the emblematic American way—moving to another place in hopes for a better life! Moving is the ultimate American Dream! Only the free can move and only as long as there is space to move! Is this an illusion and is it the nightmare of the rejected? The "American Tragedy" encompasses many facets, above all the ironic fact of being free to be excluded from the social fabric. Dan Friedman’s play, so folksy simple on the surface, raises important questions.

The production is very handsome. First of all, Joe Spirito provides an evocative setting with a painted Western silhouette landscape and wide open skies with turbulent clouds, all in sepia tones like an old photograph, surrounding the space on three sides, with audience sitting on two sides facing the transverse stage space. A table with a couple of chairs is set on each opposite end; the pillar in the middle serves as the divide. A wooden ramp runs along the painted cyclorama which extends the playing space. The furniture and props are chosen carefully to reflect the style of a mid-19th century farm home. David Levitt’s lighting in warm amber tones gives the feel of a folk story. Ali Turns provided handsome costumes in textiles that appear to have lived with the characters for some time—an important detail often overlooked by costumers. Bill Toles’s sound and projection design is subtle and unobtrusive.

Allie Woods, Jr. one of the founders of the Negro Ensemble Company and a renowned stage and film actor, directed this production with obvious care for detail. He maintains pace and rhythm of the scenes and uses space quite ingeniously; for example, after the defeat of the Confederacy and the freeing of the slaves—"times have changed" --the space separating the black family of Matata from the white family of Jesse James can be transgressed by the blacks-- their space appears to have widened; this seems to me a subtle symbolic directorial gesture.

Photo by Ronald K. Glassman

John Rankin III as Matata has many tones--he is sweet, he musters dangerous fury, he is proud but also cagey. Brad Burgess plays Jesse James at first as a reserved very quiet and practical man who evolves into a kind of Robin Hood but he is not the ruthless gangster that we know from the legend. His brother Frank James, played by David Gazzo, is a fierce racist Confederate whose alcoholism has removed all filters, and who will kill at a moment. Matata’s brother Albert is played by Michael Alcide as a religious man who reads and follows the biblical imperatives; he categorically refuses to kill for any reason, even for the cause of freedom. Ashleigh Awusie is a lovely Sejata, Matata’s wife whose presence brings grace and warmth. Sean C. Turner portrays Pap, the old slave father of Matata, with dignity. He ends the play singing with touching simplicity the hymn "O Death." It is a fitting closure of the play since he sets the mood for the first scene with Matata’s slave family with a raucous rendering of "Didn’t the Lord Deliver Daniel." Guy Prir who plays Billy Gashade, another Confederate soldier and fellow James gang member, contributes much with his banjo playing and singing of traditional songs. His first ferociously sung "To Arms in Dixie" sets up the play’s premise of the Confederate cause. The solid cast is completed by Madalyn McKay as the mother Zerelda James and in a later scene an anonymous widow and beneficiary of Jesse James; Johnny Travers as Yancey, the more moderate youngest friend to Jesse James and fellow gang member; Erik Endsley, as an impoverished white farmer who sells his farm to Matata; and Patrick Tombs who makes a brief but strong appearance as an Overseer. Each maintains distinct a characterization and together they create a microcosm of the vast American social landscape during and post- Civil War that resonates still today.



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