Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Secret for Next Sunday: A New Play by Charles Johnson

Secret for next Sunday: A New Play By Charles Johnson
Playwright Charles Johnson said he is interested in race as a theme in his work. “A Secret for Next Sunday,” is certainly that. Set in Chicago during a time where youth were unaware of the racial strife that brought many African Americans to northern cities, it’s a disrespect elders like Jim decides to address after a drug lord takes his parking space one time too many.

The playwright, an Alabama native, told me after the play that some of the instances in the play reflect his experiences growing up in the south. Enrolled in the white school before integration, he recalled being beat up a lot. Johnson remembered the white only and colored only signs and Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke at his school. He said the mule trains for the poor people’s march rolled by his house. Later on, his family moved to California, something that is also reflected in the play, which was workshopped at MET last year.

The two couples Jim and Mattie and Bessie and McCoy have know each other from childhood. The men came north together where they met their future wives, whom they thought were northern girls. When the play opens it’s been 34 years of friendship and marriage, Jim’s hearing is not what is was, and Mattie is not able to cut the rug like she used to, but she goes to church, sings in the choir and in love with Jim despite her complaints.

I found it interesting that the two, Jim and Mattie had areas of their lives where secrets lay after all the years they’d been together. Jim’s philandering also surprised me, and his lies to his wife when she asked him to attend church would come back to haunt him. A lot was haunting Jim by the time the play concluded. Those memories are reenacted on another stage inside Jim’s mind, an area of his subconscious the audience is privy too.
Jim and McCoy, as younger men, had had to confront their own bigotry when Jim found out that his little sister, Katherine was in love with a white man. The script is not predictable, yet there are times when thinks that’s the direction it’s going in. This ambiguity allows for plenty of surprises.

What I like most about the play is the relationship between the two men and the women, not to mention the couples. McCoy really loves his friend, and accepts him, faults and all. Their relationship reminds me of the one between Pinetop and Maceo in the film Honeydripper. There is even a deep dark secret the men, especially Jim, need to resolve just like Pinetop does in the film.

Dress warmly, the theatre has no heat and if it’s cold outside, it’s really cold inside. Lewis Campbell, the director celebrated his 75 birthday that evening with the cast. Actress Nathalie Bennett was great as “Katherine,” Jim’s sister, whose white boyfriend “Jerry,” played by actor Andrew H. Cushman, ignored the obvious signs. Pay attention to the Emmit Till reflections, they foreshadow the scenes in Jim’s mind. He can’t change what he did, but he certainly can learn from it. In the end, I wonder if Mattie knew what kind of man she’d married—what he was capable of? I also wonder if incident which haunts Jim and drives Katherine mad is plausible or a figment of the playwright’s imagination.

The play runs Friday-Saturday, March 7-8 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at The Next Stage, a Multi Ethnic Theatre, 1620 Gough Street (near Bush), in San Francisco. Tickets are $20 at the door with gnerous discounts at Call (415) 333-6389. Last weekend I ran into Adele and jack Foley, poets and friends of the director.


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