Good, and Good for You

Just when it seems like her "choreopoem" might devolve into a smallish, rancorous debate, Ntozake Shange's heroine/narrator steps to one side of her story and conjures -- as only a born poetess can -- feelings that are both lacerating and sublime. Brimming with dialogue that's at once startling and seductive, From Okra to Greens/A Different Kinda Love Story evokes the slight, seismic forces that shape male-female relationships. As the drama plays out in comfortably frank fashion, Shange, famed for her 1976 hit, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, uses music, poetry and humor to explore the odyssey of women searching for respect in a male-dominated world.

The Shadow Theatre Company's taut production begins as one performer asks, "Who are the dark doves that follow you...the mothers that named you?" while her five companions slowly twist and slide across the stage. Rather than plunge into a litany of similarly lofty questions, however, the actors swivel about, sculpt the air and transform the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center's tiny auditorium into a fashionable nightclub. In an instant, we're treated to Shange's trademark style of alternately prying open truths and nurturing them to full flower. It's a barely detectable pattern that director Hugo Jon Sayles and company work to considerable effect.

Miffed that her boyfriend spends "all day piling up morsels of daydreams," the feisty girl engages him in a passionate, recurring exchange that references the play's title. We might not ever be sure about the pair's exact circumstances, or even the relative permanence of their union, but the feelings that pass between Okra (Melissa Erin Taylor) and Greens (David Pinckney) are unmistakably clear. Amid episodes of spontaneous mirth and pervasive ennui, Okra confesses that it's never wise to place much stock in a man's affections. The pleasurable ambrosia of soul food, she tells us, is far more dependable -- and more enjoyable -- than the odor of male bravado and conceit. "A man talking on the television make no sense over the miracle of a good pot of greens," she declares. Later, she takes the air out of one man's inflated ego by observing, "Some men don't know that a 'well-dressed man' is a female impersonator," and drolly remarking of his supposed sexual prowess, "Though he was a little man, he liked to think of himself as large."

Okra's wry comments are enjoyable icebreakers, but things quickly turn more serious midway through Act One. Although the events and locales aren't always consistent or specific -- some scenes occur in Caribbean countries, some in an urban melting pot that might be Shange's adopted hometown of New York, and a couple seem to be figments of Okra's imagination -- the dialogue's rich imagery allows us to envision all the pertinent people and places.

In fact, sometimes it's best to put aside any need to decipher plot and let Sayles and the actors display their intuitive understanding of sensibilities. During one scene, two lovers' intertwined ecstasy ends in a rough verbal exchange that makes the racier lines in R-rated films sound tame. As beautifully played by Taylor and Pinckney, the moment seems natural and unforced in its directness. Furthermore, the troupe locates a broad range of emotions within Shange's more poetical passages, coolly dishing out her gumbo of metaphors with an ease that helps to involve us in the characters' predicaments.

A somber scene about children whose "papa was black and mother was poor" is made all the more powerful when one character quietly observes that no one is capable of noticing the kids' demise if few people will even acknowledge their mere existence. "We need a God who bleeds," says Taylor. A moment later, Pinckney talks eloquently of men who "changed the world" by mentioning boyhood heroes like actor Paul Robeson and activist W.E.B. DuBois. "You don't need to hold all your respect for human beings in one closed fist," he says. But right before his fatherly lecture lapses into dogmatic cliche, Pinckney lightens things up by turning to the audience and sputtering, "I just want James Brown to stop singing, get the hell out of the way -- and let a man come in!"

Throughout, Pinckney and Taylor manage to articulate the extreme ends of their characters' tempestuous union as well as reveal the tender love that binds them. ("I know a place we both love, and Otis Redding doesn't live there," says Pinckney.) Tracey McCall, Tyrus Cooper, Sitira Pope and Quatis L. Tarkington, who play everything from Manhattan bar-hoppers to Haitians grown weary of the Duvalier family's tag-team dictatorship, nicely support them. Far from fading into the background or busily attempting to exude a feeling of "significance," the quartet imbues each scene, whether placid or intense, with style and grace.

Apart from a few garbled words and static exchanges, the performers render the ninety-minute piece as though it were an etude that's been specially commissioned for them. It's a fitting end to an intriguing season in which the for-profit company (which doesn't qualify for public funding) has matured by taking on adventurous and provocative plays. When the six actors stand as one near play's end, it's evident that, as Okra remarks of her own journey, their visions are now their own and their dreams are about to become real.

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Jim Lillie

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