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Toys in the attic

Actor's Express repertory plays explore race and representation

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You might say there's extra credit assigned to Actor's Express' latest pair of productions. Not only is the theater presenting Thomas Gibbons' Bee-luther-hatchee and the world premiere of Alva Rogers' the doll plays in repertory, but Actor's Express urges the audience to find common ground between the two plays, to consider how one might inform the other.

It's a bold approach for the playhouse to stage the two plays side-by-side with no literal connections and sharp contrasts in form and content. They do share similarities, though, including earthy, emotional performances from Carol Mitchell-Leon near the center of both works, as well as concerns over complex matters of race in both American history and the present day. Viewing both can be a test of patience, but a rewarding experience for thoughtful theater-goers.

Alva Rogers wrote the doll plays to pay tribute to a real woman named Lenon Hoyte, aka "Aunt Len" (Mitchell-Leon), who devoted her life to collecting thousands of rare dolls and maintaining a Harlem doll museum. The real Aunt Len died in 1999, and the doll plays imagines the elderly woman on her death bed, her life flashing before her eyes -- only acted out by her dolls.

The play offers a sequence of vignettes, with some dolls telling Aunt Len's life story, others relating their history as toys and collectibles. A French dress-up doll (Anne Towns) recalls her past as a cast-off plaything, while a Grace Kelly doll (Lane Carlock) describes how the movie star had to abandon Hollywood for life as a princess.

Joanna Schmink's costumes prove amusingly appropriate (some have yarn for hair) and with about a dozen actresses made up and behaving as dolls, the show makes for technically impressive and highly precocious performances. The rag dolls flounce around as if boneless, while ones made of wood or hard plastic have a limited range of motion.

At times the dolls have tea parties or stand in as the class Aunt Len taught as a Harlem school teacher, at other times they panic when the museum gets burglarized. The play reruns scenes and speeches, employs shadow puppets and lets the narrator doll (Amanda Hou) continuously chirp "doll play" until the show makes you feel like you've gone temporarily insane. Or, more specifically, like you've taken some psychotropic drugs while watching "Antiques Roadshow."

But director Peter DuBois has a firm grasp on how much weirdness an audience can absorb. With its kaleidoscopic structure and poetic dialogue, the doll plays is by no means an "easy" text, yet Rogers' dream-logic holds together, and you comprehend the playwright's ideas and implications. Aunt Len comes across as rather delusional, but Mitchell-Leon helps you empathize with her attachment to her dolls as children and her despair at seeing her beloved Harlem deteriorate.

It's a relief that Bee-luther-hatchee, directed by K. Elizabeth Stevens, proves a more conventional drama. The protagonist is Shelita Burns (Donna Biscoe), who edits a line of reprinted "lost" African-American classics. Shelita has found a surprise best seller with the memoir Bee-luther-hatchee (an expression referring to the place you go "after hell"), and we get glimpses of the work in speeches by author Libby Price (Mitchell-Leon) describing her life in the Jim Crow South.

But despite being a successful, award-winning author, Libby remains an enigma, never photographed or interviewed, and even Shelita has never met her in person. Shelita dedicates herself to tracking Libby down, and after several blind alleys discovers in a Charlotte hotel room that the author is not at all whom she expected. The playwright provides a juicy mystery in the first act that sets up a provocative debate in the second, wrestling with such matters as authenticity, entitlement, fraud and "Why is the writer more important than the words?"

The production provides plenty of food for thought and gets vivid, credible work from its cast. Yet Bee-luther-hatchee feels somehow incomplete, like an auxiliary to the doll plays rather than a show that stands on its own. The material is strongest as a debate in the manner of Bernard Shaw rather than a character-driven play, and the story ultimately feels more like an anecdote than a fully fleshed-out plot. The script gives the audience plenty to think about, but also seems to leave Shelita stranded, especially given the character's many motivations established in the first act: Some indication of the events' aftermath on the role may lend the show more weight.

Or it may simply be that this insubstantial sense comes from the blank blandness of the set, with its plain pink-white walls and minimal furnishings, like an abandoned day spa. Mitchell-Leon delivers some of Libby's speeches from the other side of a rectangular screen, a chintzy effect that suggests an imitation of videotape more than anything else.

Some of the most emotionally affecting moments of both plays address the racism in America's past, shown in both Libby's flashbacks and the stories of several antebellum dolls, including Ali Vaughn's young slave, Early, and Marisa Cleghorn's equally young mistress, Sarah. The hundred strokes Early gives Sarah's hair foreshadows the hundred lashes the slave receives for uttering an unfortunate truth.

You can -- and should -- measure the doll plays and Bee-luther-hatchee by their unflinching considerations of race, but there's another dynamic going on in the Actor's Express repertory project. Both plays are dedicated to notions of representation, to artificial means of clinging to history and individuals who have died or disappeared. The past can be kept alive in dolls, in manuscripts -- and in plays. Aunt Len and the personalities in the plays seem dedicated to the same kind of work as the authors of the plays, making the audience uniquely conscious of the texts and their presentation.

If you take up Actor's Express' challenge in seeing their plays, avoid the temptation of attending them back-to-back, as Rogers in particular needs time to sink in. Bee-luther-hatchee and the doll plays can be taxing shows, but ones with some uncanny perspectives on the imitation of life.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Bee-luther-hatchee and the doll plays play in repertory through March 16 at Actor's Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St., Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 5 p.m. (2 p.m. Jan. 23 and Feb. 7). $20-$25. 404-607-7469. www.actorsexpress.com.

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