Sunday, May 9, 2021

555. UNDERGROUND. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Robin Braxton, Demond Wilson, Noorma Darden, Sam Singleton. (Photos: Zodiac)

UNDERGROUND [Drama/One-Acts/Race] D: Walter Jones; S: Leo Yoshimura; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Ian Calderon; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Other Stage (OB); 4/18/71-5/16/71 (38)

“Jazznite” [Art/Crime/Drugs/Family] A: Walter Jones; “The Life and Times of J. Walter Smintheus” [Drugs/Hospital/ Prostitution] A: Edgar White

 “Jazznite,” the more appreciated of the two Black plays on this bill presented by the Cornbread Players, had a low-action plot presented in a style suggestive of a jazz improv. Dudder (Demond Wilson), who has risen from the ghetto to become a distinguished art professor at Yale, visits his slum-dwelling, married sister, whose husband has abandoned her and her half-dozen kids. The successful intellectual encounters there an interesting assortment of family members and acquaintances.

Clive Barnes observed, “‘Jazznite’ is a brief, fascinating and seemingly authentic vignette of black ghetto life. It has a beautiful feel for reality, a heightened sense of the world around it. Mr. Jones involves us with his people—their casual attitude to crime and drugs, their assertiveness for life at the level they find it and, in a few instances, their determination for life at a better, easier level.”

“The Life and Times of J. Walter Smintheus” deals with another intellectual, the title character (Dennis Tate), a man from a well-off Southern family struggling to come to terms with his racial identity. He is first seen as an amnesiac in a hospital, his life to this point being enacted in fragmentary flashbacks. The audience sees how his aloof, ivory-tower lifestyle did not prevent him from being drawn into physically and emotionally harmful relationships with a whore (Robin Braxton), who gave him syphilis, and Robert (Walter Jones, the playwright/director), a fellow student at Cornell. Robert is a drug addict who dies in prison. These and other issues resulted in his present zonked-out condition.

Robin Braxton, John Gallagher, Dennis Tate.

Barnes asked, “Could anyone be quite so uptight as Smintheus? Perhaps, but there is a naiveté to him that is difficult to believe. But Mr. White's play does offer an ironic comment on the rich black boy missing it in a white man's world.”

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on by clicking here.

Next up: Uhuruh