Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

July 22, 2008

JD Cullum, Michael T Weiss, and Michole Briana White
Photo : Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008

A particularly solid 07/08 season is drawing to a close over at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City where Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group is staging the world premiere of Tanya Barfiled’s Of Equal Measure. Unfortunately, it’s a rather sour note in that this train wreck of a play fails to meet virtually any of its lofty ambitions. It’s a play concerning the struggles of one Jade Kingston, a young African-American woman who has just been promoted within the White House of Woodrow Wilson’s administration in the early 20th century. She is in an increasingly racially polarized environment and fears for her own and other's futures while her boss decides to make the moves on her. She is conflicted in outright rejecting his advances not only because she wishes to maintain her tenuous position but because she also wants to enlist her boss' help in protecting her increasingly imperiled brother. It's not necessarily a bad set up, but hardly an original one.

Not only is this a historical play, it is a philosophical and political one. The work is rich with ideas – the fallacy of linear progress in 20th-century civil rights, the competing and intersecting nature of political crises, the power of media to inspire and distract, the personal struggles and sacrifices of families, and the intersection of race and gender politics in the real lives of African-American women. It’s a shame that Barfield’s work seems overwhelmed and unable to address any of these with little more than a gulp and a nervous blank stare. The action shifts stiffly from scene to scene with broken Mamet-like dialog that rarely expresses much. The political conversations often sound as if lifted from the worst episodes of The West Wing.

It's not entirely a loss. A cast of exceedingly talented actors is on hand including Michole Briana White as Jade Kingston, Joseph C Phillips as reporter David Leonard, and JD Cullum as Joseph Tumulty, one of Wilson’s advisers. Lawrence Pressman plays president Wilson with a rather keen insight. Meanwhile a quite bearish Micheal T. Weiss has the thankless job of playing the cartoonish villain’s role of Edward Christianson, Jade's boss and erstwhile seducer. But, despite all this talent, the dialog putters along, hopelessly strained - a disappointment to be sure.


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