Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 42 / 19 October 2017
 

Once upon a time in Oakland

Theatre


Charles Peoples III as Pink and R. Shawntez Jackson as her sometimes lover have a complicated relationship in Theatre Rhino's "The Legend in Pink." Photo: David Wilson
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Whose story is it anyway? Kheven LaGrone's "The Legend of Pink" spends much of its first act in an I-gotta-be-me story of one character, climaxing in a kind of performance-art epiphany, and then abruptly dispenses with him in the second act to tell another character's tale in very different tones. There are enough good ideas in each to fill at least two short plays, but they collide uneasily – and at times confusingly – in this world premiere opening Theatre Rhino's 40th season.

It's not surprising to read that this is the first full-length play for the Oakland-based activist and essayist. Some heavy-duty dramaturgical work is still needed for this play that Theatre Rhino first produced as a staged reading earlier this year. Some of the problems aren't necessarily in the play itself but in production details that aren't always in agreement with what the characters are saying. But in the second act especially, the dynamics of an unconventional relationship are explored with unpredictable dramatic tension under AeJay Mitchell's direction.

Most of the play is set in 1989 in and around West Oakland, when the area bristled with drugs and gangs. It opens with a bit of heavy-handed exposition, as a young black man named Bradford tells a friend on the phone about his unsatisfactory visit to a trendy San Francisco bar where the mostly white clientele treat him as a stereotype of stereotypes. "You must be a good black," says one young woman, as opposed to "a real black," while her friend indicates her affinity for African-Americans by noting that her nanny was black.

As an antidote to this experience, Bradford ventures into a neighborhood bar in West Oakland where, he tells his friend on the phone, some thugs hanging around outside the bar call him out as an effete interloper based on his manner of speech and, in an identifier repeated throughout the play, his "expensive designer clothes." It might help the audience if the character ever wore anything that resembled expensive designer clothes. But those apparently fancy duds attract the attention of a transvestite barfly named Pink, who gives him her address and invites him to visit her sometime. He does, and her all-pink basement apartment beneath a crack house and her commitment to be-yourself fabulousness set him on a journey of self-exploration as he tries to shed the racial role-model constraints imbued by his parents.

Implausibly, that one visit has all the neighborhood drug dealers buzzing, and even all the members of a local church, due to his late-model Mercedes, but especially those damned expensive designer clothes. Is he an undercover narc? Why would anyone respectable visit with Pink? It's enough for the local pastor to pay Pink a visit to warn her about all the dangerously wagging tongues. When that danger manifests itself, what may have been a miscued sound effect on opening night made unclear a critical sequence of events.

Mostly, though, the second act is Pink's story revealed through her interactions with a mocking so-called friend (played with comic gusto by Phaedra Tillery) and the blue-collar lover who insists he's not gay (played with a scary volatility by R. Shawntez Jackson). The unexpectedly complicated subtleties of the relationship between Pink and Ace provide the play's most involving moments.

While Maurice Andre San-Chez offers up a brave performance as Bradford, it is Charles Peoples III's total commitment to the role of Pink that most anchors the production. A coda set in 2009 doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it does provide a happy ending for Pink and Ace as they survey the old hood in their expensive designer clothes.

 

"The Legend in Pink" will run at the Gateway Theatre through Sept. 30. Tickets are $15-$40. Call (800) 838-3006 or go to www.therhino.org.

 






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