In dramatizing the horrifying yet half-forgotten Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Darren M. Canady's play False Creeds presents numerous unnerving sights and sounds. The sounds, in fact, seem to reverberate long after the play, in its world-premiere production, has ended.
Clay Benning's remarkable sound design seems to have a direct uplink to the past, and Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage echoes with unearthly bangs, terrifying rumbles and ethereal ragtime music. It's almost like seeing a movie presented with the old, booming "Sensurround" gimmick, but False Creeds is no simple piece of escapism.
Neither is the play a relatively straightforward period piece along the lines of an August Wilson drama. Canady seeks to dramatize how the past places demands on subsequent generations and relies on a supernatural storytelling device that complicates work that would benefit from as much dramatic clarity as possible.
Jason (Warner Miller), a college student in 1995, receives a mysterious box from his ailing grandmother, Amelia (Chandra Thomas), and begins experiencing visions of his relatives in Tulsa in 1921. Jason's family belonged to Tulsa's African-American Greenwood district (so prosperous that, at the time, it was nicknamed "the Black Wall Street"), and matriarch Lydia (Joy C. Hooper) clearly believes she has more in common with cultured white people than her housekeeper, Fannie (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), from the "shanty" neighborhood.
Tensions mount in Tulsa over a young African-American man's alleged impropriety over a woman on an elevator, and soon enough, Amelia's father, Marcus (Geoffrey D. Williams), takes up arms to prevent a lynching. Lydia's certainty that intelligent behavior will defuse the racial powder keg proves tragically misguided.
False Creeds generates real suspense with the race-riot scenes, particularly when the female characters are under siege in the family's elegant home. By the end of the riot, as many as 300 African-Americans may have been killed, and Greenwood was virtually burned to the ground. And the aftermath offered no respite, with thousands left homeless and neglected by relief organizations. The play draws historical parallels from the world of the Jim Crow South to the Hurricane Katrina debacle.
Unfortunately, False Creeds relies on the awkward, contrived device of Jason experiencing the past through second sight, guided and provoked by his Alzheimer's-demented grandmother. At one point, Jason amusingly refers to the visions as "old-school Jedi mind tricks," but otherwise the play features repetitive scenes of Jason complaining to his grandmother about them or reciting dialogue simultaneously with "past" characters. It's like an approach that a novelist such as Toni Morrison could comfortably employ on the printed page, but feels artificial and strained onstage.
It doesn't help that while Thomas captures young Amelia's rubbery, girlish body language, she overplays the tremulous elderly tics as present-day Amelia. The flashback scenes rely a bit too heavily on the bickering between Lydia and Fannie, but Hooper and Abbott-Pratt are such striking, stately and impassioned actresses that the scenes retain their intensity.
False Creeds marks the third world-premiere production of the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, meant to encourage the
work of a new generation of playwrights. After three years, the playwrights and competition judges have revealed keen interests in work with considerable historical sweep. The first winner, Daphne Greaves' Day of the Kings, examined slave uprisings and switched gender roles in Cuba in the 1880s, while last year, Kenneth Lin's ..., said Said drew on the terrorism, language and legacy of the French-Algerian War.
It's too early to generalize about the latest Kendeda winner, Tarell Alvin McCraney's In the Red and Brown Water, which derives from both the writings of poet Federico García Lorca as well as the West African religion Yoruba, and will be produced next season. But False Creeds and the previous winners suggest the competition rewards ambition while turning a blind eye to some dramatic clunkiness, with all three plays suffering from contrivances (Lin's script least of all). False Creeds' supernatural flourishes only get in the way of the play's powerful message to never forget.