Dog Days: The Legend of O.V. Catto

Venture Theatre, The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through March 8, 923-2766 ext. 21

I was glad to learn as much I did about Octavius Valentine Catto, the pioneering Philadelphia educator, activist and coalition-builder, the son of a Presbyterian minister who achieved the rank of major in the Fifth Negro Regiment during the Civil War and was killed in the riots on election day in 1871, the first local election after the 14th Amendment enfranchised African Americans. But I can't say that Kimmika L.H. Williams' new play about Catto, Dog Days: The Legend of O.V. Catto, or its premier production at Venture Theatre directed by Ozzie Jones, helped all that much.

Dog Days is, if anything, a history play, but historical background and historical detail are its weakest points. We hear about the church led by O.V.'s father (Mets Suber), but we learn little about the role of the church in the community; we get to meet Fanny (the delightful Kala Moses), a tomboy proto-feminist, but we learn little about the tensions between the abolitionists and the suffragists in the women's movement; we learn, from a rousing speech from his father's pulpit by O.V. (Phillip Brown), that the black community supports the Republican candidate for mayor against the incumbent Democratic boss and that the Democrats are supported by the city's immigrant Irish and Polish communities, but we are taught little about the intersection of class, race, nationality and party politics that inflects, and is inflected by, the racism of the white population (represented here, monolithically, by two moustache-twirling actors).

And Jones' production gives us little sense of the period, or of the historical forces at work. We're given mixed signals about history from the very start of the evening, when Sonny Hoxter sits at the piano playing ragtime and accompanies Jill Scott as she sings a blues ballad, and we see the young O.V. fishing, wearing knickers and a snap-brim cap. If I hadn't read the program, I'd have thought we were in 1900, not 1847. It's not unlike seeing a play set during World War I accompanied by Elvis Presley songs with characters wearing poodle skirts.

Nor did I get much of a sense of Catto as a person, either from Williams' script, Brown's earnest performance or Jones' staging. Williams and Jones seem content to substitute imagery and musical interludes for dramatic relationships. By the time Scott's character sings a long and tearful (and magnificently sung) threnody at Catto's funeral, we realize that there are emotions being invoked and expressed by the characters that the script and the production have failed to inspire in the audience.

Teach me more; I want to learn. Engage me more; I want to be moved.

-Cary M. Mazer