REVIEW: Defamation (Canamac Productions)

   
   

Strong intentions elevate predictable stereotypes

 

 

left to right are Rob Riley, AEA (as Judge Barnes), Bernie Beck, AEA (as defendant Arthur Golden), Shariba Rivers (as the defendant’s lawyer Ms. Allen), Steven Pringle (as the plaintiff’s lawyer Mr. Lawton), and Jacquie Coleman (as plaintiff Regina Wade), in Todd Logan’s “Defamation,” a Canamac Productions world premiere courtroom drama in a limited run at three Evanston, Illinois, houses of worship, directed by Richard Shavzin.  In the scene pictured defendant Golden is on the witness stand being questioned by his attorney, Ms. Allen.

Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing;
Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

            –Iago, Othello Act 3, scene 3, 155-161

 

   
Canamac Productions presents
    
Defamation
   
Written by Todd Logan
Directed by
Richard Shavzin
at
various church locations, Evanston
through November 7  | 
tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Todd Logan designed his world premiere play, Defamation, to be staged at various church locations in Evanston–the better to provoke conversation about where we are about race and class today. Richard Shavzin directs this courtroom drama in which the Chicago area forms the template for all relations between its characters.

Regina Wade (Jacquie Coleman) is a tough African-American businesswoman, raised in Lawndale, preferring to reside in Bronzeville, who sues prominent realtor Arthur Golden (Bernard Beck), a wealthy resident of Winnetka, for the downfall of her business, due to his public accusations that she had stolen his heirloom watch. Both parties, through their lawyers, never deviate from their cross-accusations of each other. The audience must vote after closing arguments on who has made their case.

left to right are Shariba Rivers (as the defendant’s lawyer Ms. Allen), and plaintiff Jacquie Coleman (as plaintiff Regina Wade), in Todd Logan’s “Defamation,” a Canamac Productions world premiere courtroom drama in a limited run at three Evanston, Illinois, houses of worship, directed by Richard Shavzin. But does the audience vote on the case or on the racial dynamic put so clearly before them? It’s difficult to say, since Logan’s text gives them plenty of room for doubt. Ms. Wade might have lost her business because Golden slandered her among mutual clients. Or she might have lost her business due to another fiercely competitive company that undersold her products and services. Golden may have lost or misplaced his watch or it perhaps it has been stolen by someone else, but his unfamiliarity with a black woman in his own environment may have led him to think of her as the primary suspect. Logan allows ambiguity to rule. Instead of being a courtroom drama that unravels mystery and establishes the truth, the audience is left with their own conjectures over who did what and why.

As a source for discussion, the play is solid and enjoyable. It’s cast is strong, the acting personable, the direction simple and to the point. If all who show up are just the post-Obama crowd, who think that African Americans now have nothing left to complain about, then Defamation makes for good social tonic.

However, as drama, Defamation relies excessively on stereotype. Complete with a crotchety old judge, showboating lawyers, and a rich realtor more Jewish than Jesus, Defamation’s characters emerge direct from central casting. The production hangs on just as fiercely to that relatively new American stereotype, the Strong Black Woman.

left to right are Jacquie Coleman (as plaintiff Regina Wade), giving direct testimony to Steven Pringle (as the plaintiff’s lawyer Mr. Lawton), in Todd Logan’s “Defamation,” a Canamac Productions world premiere courtroom drama in a limited run at three Evanston, Illinois, houses of worship, directed by Richard Shavzin. In fact, one could re-name this play “The Battle of the Strong Black Women,” since the racial game played in the court pits Golden’s lawyer Ms. Allen (Shariba Rivers) and lawyer-witness Lorraine Jordan (Demetria Thomas) against Ms. Wades’ claims to innocence. Not that I don’t enjoy watching strong black women duke it out with each other, and these three actresses definitely give good dramatic conflict, but theirs is a battle that gives more heat than light.

Furthermore, it’s a game in which no one is fooled. Everyone knows Mr. Golden has hired a black woman as his lawyer to defeat any allegation of racism or sexism. Everyone knows Ms. Wade’s white lawyer, Mr. Lawton (Steven Pringle), has probably been hired for a similar reason. Racism has become all too predictable in American culture; likewise, defenses against racism emerge predictably. Sadly, that level of stale predictability dooms Defamation to being an interesting exercise, but not something that awakens and enlightens its audience—either to a more nuanced racial dynamic today or to a way out of our present racial malaise.

   
Rating: ★★½   
   
   

Extra Credit:

   
   

Olympia Dukakis to direct “Botanic Garden”

botanic-garden-dreamteam.jpg Botanic Garden poster

It looks like award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis (who has won an Oscar, Emmy and an Obie) will be trying her hand at directing here in Chicago.  The world premier of Dukakis-directed “Botanic Garden“, written by Chicago playwright Todd Logan, opens on February 8th, with previews beginning the week before) at Victory Gardens Greenhouse (map). The play is a humorous look at a recently widowed woman who is exploring the dating scene, all while haunted with memories of her deceased husband.  Doesn’t sound like the type of subject that lends itself to comedy, which, of course, could make it all the more funny.  We’ll soon see…. 

Check out more about the play, including the inside scoop on acquiring Dukakis as the director, at the playwright’s entertaining blog: Todd Logans Desk (pictures courtesy of Logan’s blog)

FYI: There will be a post-show discussion featuring Olympia Dukakis immediately following these performances: January 30 and February 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10.