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A racially-mixed crowd packs the theater to watch a racially-mixed cast perform a 40-year-old play by the former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party. No, it’s not a dream. It is the latest improbable reality brought forth by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, as part of Manbites Dog Theater’s Other Voices Series and its own Greek Season. You must think very broadly, as does LGP, to imagine how Ed Bullins’ Goin’ a Buffalo could fit under the Greek rubric, but never mind about that. The play’s the thing. The ancient and archetypal nature of its characters’ struggles soon becomes visible beneath the surface detail and period setting.
Not that the surface is unimportant. The particularity of these sordid lives in post-Watts riot Los Angeles matters — but you could find similar lives today in east Durham, or southeast Raleigh, or even in certain corners of northside Chapel Hill. Small-time scammers; casual murderers; unpaid musicians, cheating club owners, and brutal bouncers; dealers, junkies, pimps, strippers, and streetwalkers — some things are universal. Some of the numerous LGP cast remain ciphers identified by situation, but the five central characters are individualized. They represent types; but we care less for their symbolism, than for their suffering, struggling, scheming humanity.
The exception is the heroin dealer, Shaky, played with considerable edge by Ava Christie (a new name for a frequent performer on Durham stages; you’ll have to see for yourself who it is). Shaky is also the “lover” and pimp of Mama Too Tight (Dana Marks in a heated performance of a pitiful, weak character the author appears to despise), and is too thoroughgoing a scoundrel to become fully rounded. Although Christie works hard to make Shaky a person, the character is essentially a cardboard cutout, the Evil White Drug Dealer. Frank Lentricchia struggles against the same flatness as the Evil White Club Owner. Speaking as a white viewer, although it is not exactly refreshing to have the tables turned like this, it is salutary jolt to see every white character presented as either weak, the embodiment of evil, or simply as caricature.
Bullins gives his black characters a lot more to work with, and the strong cast makes us sympathetic to their flaws. They just want to escape their roach-hole lives and their criminal records and get as far away as possible, and plan to finance it with one last big deal in L.A. before hitting the road. The sheer absurdity of their idea of a wonderful new life in Buffalo highlights the misery of their situation and the depth of their ignorance about the larger world. You can imagine the slick confidence man Curt (impressively realized by Joseph Callendar) running a fresh new game there, but when it fails, or he gets caught — again — will he put Pandora (the bewitching Chaunesti Webb Lyon, compelling throughout, and gorgeous in her platinum Afro) on the street in six feet of snow?
Curt’s friend Art, though, knows much more about the world — he’s knocked around. Art and Curt met in jail, where Art saved Curt’s life in a brawl, and earned instant trust. Art is played by the versatile Lamont Reed in an amazing, controlled performance so seductive that when the sting comes it is deeply shocking. Without giving away the twists of the plot, I can say that the sad message of the play is that there is nothing more dangerous than trust. The only character not taken in is the only one who trusts no one — Rich (Steffon Sharpless, in a touching characterization) ain’t going to no Buffalo. But Rich has no dreams, either; just a determination to survive, unincarcerated.
All this bleak action takes place in another of Little Green Pig’s inventive, well-designed sets (by Erik Benson, John Galt, and Emily Hower) and amid a soundscape of period music and a recent recording of “The Back Stabbers,” sung by LGP member Greg Hohn. Jay O’Berski’s carefully paced direction and clever staging are very effective. On preview night, the first act was a little rough and draggy; but by the second act, which opens with a complicated club scene so far downstage that it includes the audience, everyone was in the groove. This is not one of LGP’s manic extravaganzas; it is more straightforward storytelling, though not without its own gritty poetics. Goin’ A Buffalo is replete with excellent acting, and so thought provoking that seeing it once may not be enough.
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents Goin’a Buffalo Wednesday-Saturday, July 9-12 and 16-19, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, July 13, at 3:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster Ave., Durham, NC 27701. $12 Wednesday-Thursday and $17 Friday-Sunday, except $8 Student Rush Tickets (door sales only). 919/682-3343 or http://manbitesdogtheater.tix.com. NOTE: Playwright Ed Bullins will attend the show’s July 9th and 10th performances. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern: http://littlegreenpig.com/season/goinabuffalo/ [inactive 11/08]. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/250/. Goin’a Buffalo: http://www.answers.com/topic/goin-a-buffalo (Answers.com). Ed Bullins: http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/bios/Bullins__Ed.html (Pennsylvania Center for the Book at Pennsylvania State University), http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=people&first=Ed&last=Bullins&middle= (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=412633 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0120097/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://www.bridgesweb.com/blacktheatre/bullins.html (Bridges Web Services) [inactive 7/10].