Friday, November 27, 2020


William Jay, Adolph Caesar, Katherine McGrath, Jeff David.
“PERRY’S MISSION” and “ROSALIE PRITCHETT” S: Edward Burbridge; C: Monica Myrie; L: Ernest Baxter; P: Negro Ensemble Company; T: St. Marks Playhouse (OB); 1/12/71-2/21/71 (44)

Anita Wilson, Frances Foster, Esther Rolle, Roxie Roker, Clarice Taylor.

“Perry’s Mission” [Barroom/Crime/Race] A: Clarence Young III; D: Douglas Turner Ward; “Rosalie Pritchett” [Race/Southern] A: Carlton and Barbara Molette; D: Shauneille Perry 

A bill of two one-acts, presented during the Negro Ensemble Company’s season emphasizing “themes of black struggle.” Mel Gussow said that, in these plays, “the struggle is not so much against white supremacy as against a more insidious form of racism—the imposition of values by whites on blacks and the acceptance by blacks of those values. The plays . . . condemn whites as models, blacks as passive receivers.” 

The bill began with “Perry’s Mission,” which is the name of a Midwestern black bar in which the action takes place. As often in such locales, many characters representing a stereotypical cross-section of class structures, jobs, and problems assemble here. Their central focus is the avuncular yet authoritarian barkeep (Adolph Caesar). 

The episodic drama of class conflict and character revelation ends abruptly in a scene of violence. According to Gussow, “Strobe lights flicker on choreographed carnage. Whites are labeled as organized instigators of black self‐destruction, turning the play into a sort of ‘Perry's Mission Impossible.’ What was subtle . . . is made wrenchingly obvious.” All the black characters die and two trespassing whites (Jeff David, Katherine McGrath) survive after succeeding in getting the others to kill themselves off.

To Walter Kerr, the anti-white message was implausible in the dramatic context. Black critic Clayton Riley agreed, stating that the contrived ending “in its James Bondian fantasy, brings death on [Young’s] previously well-designed work.”

“Rosalie Pritchett” was less effective, but it was nonetheless a strong work with internal class conflicts among African-Americans. A well-off, upper middle-class, black Southern matron, Rosalie Pritchett (Frances Foster), is infused, like her snobbish friends, with white cultural values, and a low opinion of ghetto blacks. She is stopped by four, low-class white National Guardsmen (played by black actors) for being out past curfew during a period of racial rioting. The men rape her, thereby bringing home to her the distorted view of racial reality she and her friends so long believed in. 

Since the action is narrated by Rosalie from a hospital bed upstage, behind a scrim, her lack of participation in the rape greatly weakened the effect, creating what Gussow called “a disembodied” effect.

Edith Oliver, who found the program the Negro Ensemble Company’s “strongest . . . in ages,” thought this play’s indictment too sweeping and bitter, yet still found it “witty, sad, and powerful.” The production style was semi-expressionistic, using flashbacks. The white soldiers were played by black actors in a deliberately “white” manner. Gussow, comparing it to the first play, wrote: “It is written with much less sureness and spontaneity and it is somewhat shakily staged.”