Mark Clayton Southers' "James McBride" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review — James McBride , Mark Clayton Southers — AAPEX

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mark Clayton Southers' "James McBride" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review

Stage Review: Irish culture clash with a comic wallop
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Don't let the grim sound of "culture clash" put you off: In "James McBride," the second play in a thematic series of that name by Mark Clayton Southers, the clash has explosive potential, but the result is less bombshells than pinwheels and sparklers of comic sentiment.

This world premiere is a sweetly comic encounter between a young African-American poet and the word-spinning, Guinness-saturated curmudgeons of Galway, Ireland. The sweetness may seem improbable, but that's no great fault in a parable more about the similarities between cultures than the differences.
The play goes to some trouble to disguise the nature of its clash for the first few scenes, but I don't have that luxury. So here's your spoiler alert -- but I don't spoil anything essential.


'James McBride'
Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 751 Penn Ave., Jackman Building, Downtown.
When: Through Sept. 29: Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; also 2 p.m. Sept. 29.
Tickets: $20-$25; discounts; 412-394-3353.


James McBride is a Chicago poet, who, when a poetry society in Galway decides to open up its ancient annual contest to Irish expatriates, enters and wins. Actually his poem is submitted by his friend, Tyrone Reed, who's white but who raps and struts like a black wannabe, to the considerable joy of the audience.

McBride, however, is black, and when he and friend Reed arrive in Ireland to collect the $25,000 prize, there's some consternation, partially racist, partially just the orneriness of old men who've been squabbling for years. There are questions of procedure, and while McBride waits for resolution, there's time for a dalliance to develop with Darby, the barmaid -- and antagonism with her guy, Little Coogan, who owns the pub where they all hang out.

Eventually, it all results in a boxing match between McBride and the massive Coogan, reminiscent of the Cooney-Holmes culture-clash title bout. It's a measure of Southers' concept that it seems to make sense, this mix of competitive poetry reciting and fisticuffs, both drenched in male aggression, status, culture and race.
The play exudes a genuine love of poetry. Most of the poets cited are real (funny how the Chicagoan McBride knows a number of Pittsburgh poets), but most of the snippets of poetry recited are actually written by Southers.
In addition to the humor of the Reed character, Southers provides feisty cantankerousness for the three oldsters, who are played with zest by old pros Roger Jerome, E. Bruce Hill and Jay Keenan. The culture clash occasions humor: The Irish note other black Americans with possible Irish tint, such as Eddie Murphy, Donovan McNabb and Shaquille O'Neal, and there's comic confusion about slang, especially Irish "craic," pronounced "crack."

Thanks to Andrew Paul of the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, who directs with collaborative care, the cast is strong throughout. There's James Keegan's intimidating but sensitive Coogan (he plays the fiddle, too), Theo Allyn's wistful Darby and Joseph Martinez' hip-hoppin' Reed. Cheryl El-Walker plays a talk-show host on tape.
All provide a rich environment for the sweetest performance, Joshua Elijah Reese's McBride. Still an undergraduate at Point Park, Reese is the real thing, a sensitive actor who knows how to do very little and draw you in. Much of the play's emotion happens subtly on his face, and for his sake we are willing to overlook the play's shortcomings.

Mainly, it's a bit long. And there are improbabilities (a $25,000 prize from a society that is dependent on a free place to meet?) and loose ends (was this McBride a Golden Gloves fighter?).

Ultimately, the Irish discover that opening themselves up to expatriates allows culture to flow both ways, especially between cultures that have both known the heritage of segregation and racial hate. For a new comedy, "James McBride" provides a remarkable kick.

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