History Test


History supposedly repeats itself — a shuddering thought given some current events. But as for “herstory,” the polemical concept that brings The Coterie Theatre’s Breath of an American Spirit: Sacagawea to a skidding halt, once is probably enough.

Christina Anderson’s screechy play begins in a library, where high schoolers Renee (Kathryn Taylor) and Ricardo (Chris Kellenberger) are working independently on different projects. He’s investigating the prison system and she’s struggling with a poem about Lewis and Clark’s valuable but sketchily documented Shoshone Indian guide, Sacagawea (Andi Meyer). Peering out from behind a feather-covered book, the title character is sitting to the side of Gary Wichansky’s round stage (it’s the shape of the Sacagawea coin but, as one young audience member pointed out, it’s the color of orange juice). She’s finished observing, though, and ready to be observed; it’s Stand Up and Be Counted Day.

But HIStorian (Shawn Halliday) and HERstorian (Lauren Stanford) are ravenous about their narrowly chosen fields. The weird grammar in their names explains their biases: He’s all about the white male perspective and not keen on letting Sacagawea tell her story, and she’s equally (if inexplicably) content to keep Sacagawea muted. Once her gag is removed, though, Sacagawea assists Renee with her poem by righting all of history’s wrongs regarding her role in the Lewis and Clark expedition — while the academics fume.

Clark (Scott Cordes) is a kind man who rescues Sacagawea from her abusive husband, Charbonneau (Halliday), who picked her up like a souvenir in North Dakota. He also has a slave named York (Taylor), who befriends Sacagawea because of their shared minority status. By the close of the story, Renee’s poem is completed and performed at an open-mic night at her school. And so goes the play, a well-researched yet simplistic effort to urge young audiences to second-guess their history books.

Renee’s journey toward this understanding is interesting enough; so is the story of Sacagawea. Putting them together in a blender and hitting puree, though, results in a shake that tastes funny. Anderson hasn’t so much written a play as wielded an agenda, and while that may be cathartic in a class at her Brown University, it doesn’t make for compelling theater. The historian characters are stereotypes, dismissible because they’re such buffoons. And the high schoolers are clumsily written. When Renee, supposedly a modern African-American teenage girl immersed in hip-hop culture, says, “Scope that, cat,” it sounds if she’s been transported by a time machine from a ’50s beatnik joint.

Cordes and Taylor are well-cast by director Jeff Church, who genuinely believes the material is profound. Making his Coterie debut, Kellenberger has a Keanu Reeves-like stiffness. And Meyer never finds her rhythm. She’s somewhat strong and somewhat oppressed but doesn’t have much warmth — she’s a sketch. Either story independently could be flush with heart, but the play keeps everything above the neck. It’s a book report with costumes and lights.

Biblical proportions: Though the musical Children of Eden didn’t last long in London’s West End and never made it to Broadway (the closest it got was Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey), it has a cult following and has become a regular production at regional theaters around the country. Knowing they had something to bring to the show, members of the Jewish Community Center’s Cultural Arts Department are mounting a production that will be available for bookings across the metro area this fall.

Director Mark Swezey says he vaguely knew of the show, a collaboration between Stephen Schwartz and John Caird, who between them have resumes including Les Miserables and Pippin. He describes it as “loosely based on Genesis, but I don’t know how Biblically correct it is, which isn’t the issue anyway.”

Swezey recalls that Beatrice Fine of the Cultural Arts Department “brought it to me over a year ago and said, ‘You ought to take a look at this.'” After he bought the cast album of the Paper Mill production, its themes became relevant to him and, post-September 11, are perhaps even more so. “It addresses a lot of things about letting go and second chances,” Swezey says. “In addition to making it our winter show, we said, ‘Let’s get it out to people who wouldn’t normally get to the Center.'”

To date, five organizations have scheduled the show, and potential bookers are invited to an October 20 performance (interested groups can call Don Arnott at 816-550-1313).

“One of my favorite things about this project is that the multi-ethnic [and multi-denominational] cast is itself a model of tolerance and diversity,” Fine says. “Little nuances have been really interesting; for example, the JCC is a kosher facility, so all the food here must be strictly kosher. Explaining to the cast they can’t bring a pork chop to eat before rehearsal has been an eye-opener for some.”

Categories: A&E, Stage