Review/Theater; A Political Morality Tale On the McCarthy Era
THE NEW YOUR TIMES
By WILBORN HAMPTON
Published: November 26, 1993
“Elizabeth Mitchell is credible as Sheila Harcourt, a writer.“
Few calumnies have had a more lasting effect on the national psyche than the witch hunt for Communists instigated and pursued in Congress by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950’s. Its smoldering residue gives off varying degrees of heat and light in such diverse works as Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23d Floor” on Broadway, and Laurence Holder attempts to stoke it into a full blaze downtown in his new play, “Red Channels,” at Theater for a New City.
Unfortunately, “Red Channels” fails to provide much heat or light. The play focuses on the efforts by the junior senator from Wisconsin, goaded and abetted by J. Edgar Hoover and Richard M. Nixon, to use his red-menace campaign to discredit leading black intellectuals and artists, specifically W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Mr. Holder compresses real events into a fictionalized chronology that aims at the documentary effect Eric Bentley achieved in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been,” a dramatization of actual Congressional testimony, which was staged in New York in 1978.
In the case of “Red Channels,” however, the result is more like a primer on the political evils of the time, a sort of morality tale-cum-history lesson that would likely be better suited for a school or church auditorium than a theater. The characterizations are simplistically drawn, and the dialogue, which fills in biographical detail and provides background, is forced and artificial. References to the Smith Act or the Taft-Hartley Act or other figures of the era, like Langston Hughes, are sprinkled throughout.
Mr. Holder’s effort to cover all the bases creates some implausible conversations. In one, for example, as Du Bois and Robeson philosophize in the former’s office, making observations like “it’s darkest just before dawn,” Robeson suddenly bursts into a rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” At the end, Mr. Holder allows first Robeson and then Du Bois to confront McCarthy and Nixon in the Senator’s office and makes both cower like whipped puppies. While such scenes may satisfy the itch of vengeance, they tend to trivialize the sacrifice and struggle of two genuine American heroes.
For the most part, the performances match the sermonizing tone of the text. Robert F. Cole does a very funny Nixon impersonation, and Elizabeth Mitchell is credible as Sheila Harcourt, a writer. Nick Smith’s W. E. B. Du Bois comes across as a kindly Joel Chandler Harris character, and Dennis L. Bivings’s Paul Robeson seems to be modeled on the character of Joe from “Show Boat.” Ed Clarkson-Farrell’s strident McCarthy shrieks like a hysterical madman. It may be the way many people would prefer to remember Tail Gunner Joe, but it belies the real danger he represented. Rome Neal directed. Red Channels By Laurence Holder; directed by Rome Neal; sets by Chris Cumberbatch; lighting by Marshall Williams; costumes by Anita Ellis; sound by David Wright; stage manager, Michael Thomas-Newton. Presented by Bartenieff/Field. At the Theater For the New City, 155 First Avenue, at 10th Street, East Village, through Dec. 12.
WITH: Dennis L. Bivings, Robert F. Cole, Ed Clarkson-Farrell, Valentino Ferriera, Elizabeth Mitchell, Nick Smith, Daniel Tuck and William Duke.