Ebony and Irony

A new theater company has just arrived in Denver with a hot agenda and a cool style: Shadow Theatre Company is intent on bringing more plays by African-American playwrights to the boards. And if its first production, Innocent Thoughts, by William Downs, is any indication, we're in for some exhilarating and politically volatile theater.

This fine production boasts an excellent two-man cast. Filled with ethnic and racial slurs, it is meant to offend, and it does. But while it doesn't answer all the questions it raises about relations between blacks and Jews--and though its labyrinthine arguments about ethics and racial politics can seem abstract and unbalanced--it unravels an intriguing mystery along the way.

Forensic anthropologist Arlen Weinberg has been called as a defense witness to examine the bones of a murder victim--a black man killed some twenty years earlier and buried in the basement of an influential white cop. The African-American lawyer defending the racist officer at first appears to be doing his job as a defense attorney, coaching Arlen in an effort to clear his client. But there is more to attorney Ira Aldredge than meets the eye.

As it happens, Ira and Arlen have known each other for years. They went to school together in a Chicago suburb called Lawndale that was once a Jewish neighborhood and is now 100 percent black. Back in those days, Ira even used to beat Arlen up. And the old conflicts between the men quickly resurface as they prepare for trial.

Ira is ready to fix blame, and Arlen is defensive. Arlen isn't good as a witness--he seems wishy-washy, and Ira begins needling him at once. Almost from the very start, Arlen's self-consciousness about race leads to unfortunate, insensitive remarks. He just doesn't know how to behave. Ira, in turn, unleashes a series of anti-Semitic slurs that make the viewer wince.

However, the stereotypes they believe about each other begin to flake away as the sparks fly. Arlen's racism is learned, and he is earnestly trying to throw it off. Ira makes Jews the scapegoat for his anger at white society in general--and in particular, he targets Arlen's dad, his parents' former landlord. Playwright Downs is not evenhanded, to say the least; though the play is presented as a dialectic that gives equal time to both sides of the issue, the exchanges often seem weighted against Arlen.

Some of the play's antipathy seems forced: No modern anthropologist, for instance, would be stupid enough to refer to an African dance as a "jig" or nervous enough to refer to Native Americans by making a mock war whoop. And in the course of Downs's dialectic, a lot of assertions are made that go unchallenged. But by play's end, some of Arlen's and Ira's differences have been resolved, and it's clear that Downs, though not always successful, has made a good-faith effort to air their grievances as well as he can--to find some path out of the maze of fear, hate and suspicion. When the two men engage in a physical fight, some of the pettiness falls away, and a genuine understanding begins to emerge. In the end, the ethical dilemma about how to handle the racist cop and the identification of the bones is transformed into a symbol of justice for African-Americans.

Directors Michael Duran and Hugo Jon Sayles keep the action lively, the fight choreography bristling and the central ideas burning. But it's the acting that matters most here. Jeffrey W. Nickelson as the irate Ira is a fascinating presence on stage. An incredibly inventive actor, he has an immense emotional range that keeps viewers glued to his character, searching his face for what he really believes. As Arlen, Matt Cohen makes an impressive foil, diving into the arguments with bursts of insight and courage, then withdrawing in flights of guilt and sorrow. Both actors make their characters evolve visibly, building an intense intimacy out of hostility.

And these characters do have staying power. The play's ambiguous ending leaves the discussion open--there is more to be said, more to be understood and more to heal. But the hopelessness about race relations one might have felt earlier in the play does begin to disintegrate a little. Rage has a purpose, Downs seems to be saying, but that purpose is limited. Something more constructive has to surface, too.

Innocent Thoughts, through August 9 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 322-2695.

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