One of the most marvelous of medieval tales is the story of Faust, who sold his soul to the Devil for either knowledge, wealth, youth or sex, depending on who's doing the telling. Among the most appealing versions of the cautionary tale is a contemporary African-American treatment--The Trials and Tribulations of Staggerlee Booker T. Brown, an uproarious comedy with serious undertones now playing at Eulipions.
The play opens in the Nite Life, a shabby neighborhood bar. The barkeep is a handsome, thirtyish man in love with a "churchified" young girl, Deloris (played with bright candor by the lovely Vanessa Whetstone). Worldly Sweet Thing sits at a table passively looking for a little action; penniless student California (sensitively characterized by Damion Even Hoover) gazes longingly in her direction but has no money to take her out on a date. The story comes into focus when a local drunk, Rhymin' Willie, staggers in and offers to tell a story in exchange for wine.
The story he tells is about the famous folk hero Staggerlee, who sells his soul to the Devil, repents, and is cast into space by God until he gets religion. Sent back to earth for a second chance to do good, the old man finds himself lusting after a woman in his church, Sister Polly, and sells his soul yet again in exchange for three years as a young man, plenty of money and a shot at Polly.
When the Devil comes to collect, Staggerlee challenges the legality of the contract and demands a trial. Naturally, the judge (the hilariously lecherous Royal Anthony Rayburn) belongs to the Devil, along with the chief witness. But the attorney for the defense is Rhymin' Willie himself--now transformed into folk-hero status under the name High John. His defense centers on human fallibility, the sociological implications of being black and poor in America and the actual good Staggerlee managed to do before his three-year sin stint.
The denizens of the Nite Life are double-cast as the Staggerlee characters--a terrific formal choice that pulls us into the drama: If it could happen to them, it could happen to us. One of the most interesting decisions by director Gwen Harris is to cast Big Red (the Devil in the Staggerlee story) as a quiet playwright in the bar story. The playwright (a very decent if somewhat ineffectual fellow) becomes the splashy center of temptation, and the actor playing the two roles, Jerry Randolph, is a very handsome Devil indeed. The same applies to David C. Pinckney as Staggerlee.
The two most riveting performances belong to Roslyn Washington and Hugo Jon Sayles. Washington plays Sweet Thing, a slut with principles, and Big Red's henchwoman, Bertha Butt, a slut without principles. Washington brings so much caustic wit and sophisticated style to both her personas that she anchors the whole show. And Sayles, a big, adorable comic actor with a commanding presence, is perfectly cast as the storyteller/defense attorney.
The show has a few production snags. Rough edges in the lighting design and the staging, in particular, make entrances and exits a bit awkward. And the play itself could use a little work toward the end of Act II, when the theology gets a trifle muddled.
But playwright Don Evans does have something important to tell us about being black in America, and his humor is profoundly humane, if often scathing. The sudden breaking of the "fourth wall"--when the actors "decide" to speak to the audience directly--is so rich with style and wit that the whole performance is lifted to a new high.
The real attraction of the play lies in Evans's ability to bring an old myth to life in vividly original terms. We all get old, Staggerlee tells us, even if nobody wants to. And if the temptation to give in to evil is great, all of us deserve a second chance--or even a third--to do well by our fellows.
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