New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs"
Spoon Theater, off-Broadway, Manhattan

It is surely rare that African-Americans take up the cudgels for Jews, sympathetically reviewing the history of anti-Semitism. They have had enough on their own plates, without taking on the history of Jewish persecution. Yet John Henry Redwood has done just that in his appropriately-titled drama, “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs.” The play takes its title, the playwright explains, from signs that could be seen entering some small southern towns. (One hopes that this practice does not continue to be true in today’s multi-cultural world.)

“No Niggers” is essentially a play about a struggling African-American family, but a Jewish friend plays a critical role. As the play unfolds, Redwood draws parallels between Jewish and African-American persecution. Yaveni Waldman comes from a family which has experienced European anti-Semitism in all its horrors. Now a scholar—ostensibly a sociologist—Waldman is studying the black families of the south. In the process, he becomes friend and advisor to the Cheeks family.

The temptation is to label “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs” a play in process, since it needs to be edited and tightened. But Redwood, alas, died in 2003 (shortly after he finished the play) and cannot perform this much-needed chore.

Yet “No Niggers” is a play of worthy intentions which has its powerful moments. It is a plea for tolerance, for acceptance of racial and religious differences. Set in small-town North Carolina, “No Niggers” follows the trials of a strong black woman (Mattie Cheeks, played beautifully by Pamela O. Mitchell) and her family. Mattie has been raped by a white man, but does not tell her husband Rawl, fearing that his justifiable rage would end in his own destruction. Her scenes with Rawl ring with authenticity. But exchanges with her children go on ad nauseam. Redwood overstates the case, in explaining that Mattie is a strict, caring parent.

The current off-off-Broadway production, with its limited facilities, does not do justice to the material. With a small makeshift stage and uneven casting, the show falters. Yet the black family is so faithfully portrayed that one becomes deeply involved in their fates. Fine performances are offered, not only by Mitchell, but Patrick Mitchell as her husband, and Aaliyah Miller and Skai Konha as their daughters. But Russell Waldman, as the Jewish scholar who befriends them, and Dana Jones as their haunted aunt, never really inhabit their roles. The play cries out for a sensitive, strong portrayal of the Jewish friend, one who clearly understands and identifies with victimization.

-- Irene Backalenick
July 10, 2008

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