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The missing

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When I began as a critic, British sex farce was this region's most visible form of foreign theater. An equally shallow reading list covered most of our needs insofar as ethnic or multi-cultural programming went.

Judging from community stages, Master Harold...and the Boys was the only work South African playwright Athol Fugard had ever written. So was Ntozake Shange's similarly orphan opus, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Both--and little else--were regularly tendered during the same month Lorraine Hansbury's 1959 Raisin in the Sun provided for too many programmers (and therefore too many audiences) the final statement on black theater.

There has been some progress since the early 1990s. Though he's rarely produced, August Wilson is no longer a total stranger to our area. Still, it bears underlining that controversial present-day playwrights like Kia Corthron and Susan-Lori Parks remain so.

Does their absence, and the absence of those like them, speak to a timid, conservative mindset in regional programming? One which prefers the focus on issues in black theater and culture be kept at a comfortable distance--say, about 1985 or so? Or are regional producers merely several decades behind in their reading and attendance in African-American theater?

Whatever the answer to that question, our spotty record on black theater here shines compared with our rare productions of Latino playwrights like Jose Rivera. And that simply sparkles when placed beside the total absence of Mexican and Spanish-language theater on our stages.

Somehow, regional theaters and presenters missed the fact that Latino and Hispanic populations constituted the largest demographic shift in our recent history, growing by 394 percent in North Carolina in the last decade.

In the past 10 years, regional theaters have produced well over 1,000 plays. Dozens of them have been translated for the deaf or audio-described.

In that same time, to the best of our knowledge, only one show was performed in Spanish: Walltown Theater's children's show Romeo y Julieta, earlier this year.

This fall theater season is the busiest I have ever seen in this region. By Dec. 31, area artists, companies and presenters will have produced well over 100 shows. Not one of them will be performed in Spanish.

What shall we call this? A failure of artistic imagination, perhaps; certainly, an unseized opportunity? Is it abandoning the cultural needs of an entire community, or perhaps just an unstated example of cultural racism? One thing is clear: it is our shame. How long will it continue?

Readers, I want you in on this discussion. When you look around at regional theater and dance, what do you find missing? Drop me a line this week at byron@indyweek.com.

The missing also figured into one notable offering in Carolina Ballet's Ballet Festival, a two-evening cycle of new and recent works that closes this weekend at Raleigh's BTI Center. In Lost and Found, Lynne Taylor-Corbett places a meditation about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on a collection of Schumann etudes. By the end, an octet of dancers finds a way to represent a greater absence.

The winged arc of Attila Bongar's arms at the opening deliberately devolved to one hand, flat on the floor, supporting the body of a man brought to his knees. The corps varied between elongated pauses and frenetic, arcing leaps in circles about the stage, evidencing loss, despite intense labor.

Loss is further represented in Margaret Severin-Hansen's duets with Gabor Kapin. Their relationship clearly suggests a man whose partner was lost in the conflagration. Still, Severin-Hansen's thin, fragile form reappears at several points, first in one man's haunted memory, then as a guiding or inspiring force.

Caitlin Mundth and Edgar Vardanian's poignant, empty hands reach out on several occasions to those who cannot or will not take them. And the maximum space the arcing hands and legs cover as dancers leap across stage at Lost and Found's more passionate moments still draws attention to the empty space all around them--the circle whose center will never be filled, the palpable presence of the missing.

Other highlights from Program Two (which repeats Thursday and Saturday) included Donald Mahler's luscious Les Esprits D'Eau and the sometimes dry, sometimes witty human calculus in Tyler Walters' Five Geometric Dances.

Program One's standouts include Robert Weiss' arrangements in black and white to Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (even if, in a departure from the norm, the Ciompi Quartet marred the first Friday performance with an unprepared reading of the work). The behind-the-scenes representations of Weiss' Des Images, inspired by the drawings of Degas, showed Marin Boieru as a choreographer haunted by dancers both past and hypothetical, by past works and those not yet made. In the midst, Timour Bourtasenkov's Intrigue amused with its details of juicy, low-down assignations among the high-born set. Program One repeats Sept. 26 and Sept. 28.

Spoken word shaman Sekou Sundiata has dazzled Duke audiences before with his trickster mix of incantation and rhythm and blues. But this week's performance, Blessing the Boats, takes us on a different journey than ones in the past. Sundiata's autobiographical solo show with video and music takes us with him as he negotiates life-threatening illness over the past three years.

Kidney failure and complications force the artist to face the most uncomfortable of home truths, and a series of life choices he made years and decades earlier. In the process, notes Duke Artists Series assistant director Beverly Meek, "Sundiata learns how you put together a new life, who your family really is, and discovers that there really are 'earth angels.'"

The witness speaks--as only he can--of change, Sept.25-26 in Reynolds Theater. Sundiata will also give a free lecture at the Center for the Study of Medical Ethics and Humanities at Duke Hospital's room 2002, Friday at noon.

This Week:
Other notable openings:
Measure for Measure, Actors from the London Stage, ArtsCenter; Underneath the Lintel, Flying Machine, Raleigh Charter High; Dance at Bataan, DDA Studio 2, Kenan Theater, UNC; The Rainmaker, Triad Stage; Poushali Chatterjee: Manipuri Dance, Duke Institute of the Arts, Reynolds Theater; NC Youth Tap Ensemble, Elon University; Choreo Collective, Carrboro Music Festival; Break! The Urban Funk Spectacular, Carolina Theatre

Reviews:
***1/2 Dames at Sea, Raleigh Little Theatre--An assortment of Hollywood musical cliches from the 1940s and '50s are slow roasted in this funny send-up, to snappy tap choreography by Freddie-Lee Heath. Amie Davidson doesn't truly fulfill her stage vamp role until a second act Lugosi moment with boy toy Jamey Benson. And though Susan Durham-Lozan's beyond the ingenue role of Ruby, the impact of her "Raining in My Heart" was stunning. But Blair Byrd's a keeper as Joan, a Joisey Goil hoofer with a heart of gold. Now if we could only always hear Haimsohn and Miller's addled lyrics over the live orchestra...

***1/2 The Faraway Nearby, Theatre in the Park--John Murrell's vivid poetry matches the strong images of Georgia O'Keeffe at times as he documents the artist's physical decline and grudging, growing dependency on handyman Juan Hamilton in this heartbreaking play. Though D. Anthony Pender gives a fine grassroots-level performance as Hamilton, the overarticulation in Erica Nashan's musical voice belongs strictly to a young, professional actor, not an aging genius we see, briefly, on the edge of darkness. EndBlock

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