Things of Dry Hours is a sharp-edged drama which finds a Black Communist, his widowed daughter and a White, outlaw stranger, locked within an intricate and volatile triangle of race and wills. As the finale of the 2006-2007 season at Baltimore's Centerstage Head Theater, the production proved to be powerful in its performances and thought provoking in its themes and content.
For this production, a long rectangular stage juts out from a wide square proscenium. The edges of the stage are bordered with wide metal grates where stark light is blazes up from beneath the stage. Hanging at a 45 degrees over the extreme thrust, a giant parchment billboard, threatening dire consequences to any Negroes who dare to attend of participate in communist activities, in dark bold lettering. In the wooden stage itself, sat a tree stump, a stage and chair, and a simple white sheet, with many such sheets hanging in from the ceiling over head. The giant billboard rises at it's feet to reveal a twisted, confused network of piping and metals, revealing the entrance way from backstage. And enter our first character: Tice Hogan, played by Roger Robinson.
In his opening speech, he introduces the metaphor that will reoccur over and over again during this play: the dichotomy of the apple. He relished in the fact that the flesh of the apple is white, but at the core, the reason that the apple exists (the reason that the tree exists) is because of the black seeds inside. Next, he sets the scene for the audience: Birmingham, Alabama, 1932, the heart of the Great Depression. Tice lives in a time where perhaps the only thing worse than being Black, is being a Communist activist.
Tice lives in this small shack with his daughter, the sullen, resentful Cali (Erika LaVonn) who cuts the firewood and washes sheets for the people in the next town, their only real source of income. She is the captive audience that Tice practices all his speeches, the fertile soil in which Tice willfully plants ideas. They have the perfect symbiotic relationship (he preaches, she complains) coexisting under the radar of the suffering world at large, save a Communists meeting or two that go south when the police show up.
Then along comes Corbin Teel (Steven Cole Hughes), a White man seemingly from out of the blue. He's running from the law, and needs a place to hide. When Tice insists that he can't stay, Teel threatens to call the police on him and his daughter, exposing them as communists. Seeing no other choice, they allow him to stay. As the days wear on Teel begins to insist Tice teach him the principles of Communism, or even better, take him to a meeting. Suspicious of Teel's curiosity and wary of the attraction he sees growing between this man and his daughter, Tice reluctantly begins teaching Teel the art of rhetoric and philosophies of his underground political party.
The remainder of the play is a chess game. Two kings circling one another, one Black, one White. Both using their best tricks to best the other and control the queen. Tice knows that Teel did not happen upon his doorstep. Through a slow process of deconstructing the man's soul, Tice eventually reveal the reason for Teel's appearance.
Things of Dry Hours examines the 'currency' that society allows each individual, solely based on his or her class, gender or race. The piece is a living testament that control is an illusion, and that illusion is power when skillfully wielded. Roger Robinson is exceptional in the role of Tice, conveniently playing up the part of the frail old man one moment, then striking down his opponent as the ultimate master of words and manipulation the next.
Things of Dry Hours is an extremely dense material. Dialogue flows effortlessly into poetry. The drama is raw emotions stuffed inside metaphors of flying color, encased within a web of political and racial tension. Typically a storyteller makes the choice of going for the head or the heart of his or her audience. However, this play demanded a lot of its audience intellectually and emotionally unlike any play I ever experienced.
I understand the physical attraction that Teel and Cali have for one another, but I never felt the emotional connection between them. There is a wavering suggestion that these feelings may or may not be real for each of them at several points in the play. However, it will always be a hard sell to have two characters believably fall in love in the span of just a few weeks. Kudos to Erika LaVonn for endowing Cali with a surprising, believable vulnerability as she stands at the center of the tug of war between Tice & Teel.
Things of Dry Hours was engaging as it was exhausting. I thoroughly enjoyed this Centerstage Production.
Things of Dry Hours is running now through June 3, 2007 at:
The Head Theater
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
Box Office 410.332.0033