I Am A Man

Philadelphia Theatre Company, Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., through Feb. 4 , 735-0631.

I like historical dramas. I like their large canvas, their broad sweeping action and large cast of characters. I like learning about events I didn't live through, or that I knew little about. I like learning more about events I did live through: that the events were not as simple as I had been led to believe, that they involved the interplay of complex social forces, of competing interests and agendas. I like that peculiar binocular effect you get from knowing the outcome of the historical events, and yet imagining yourself, like the characters, making decisions and taking actions, the outcomes of which can only be roughly calculated, and which often end, tragically or triumphantly, in ways that were least anticipated.

And so I had every reason to like I Am A Man, OyamO's historical drama about the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker's strike that climaxed with the assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

I Am A Man is not about the King assassination. Rather, it is about T.O. Jones (Vince Williams), the man who organized the Memphis sanitation workers into local 1733 of AFSCME in 1964, and who called the wildcat strike in 1968 without proper organization, without proper timing ("Why strike in February, when garbage doesn't smell?" a labor organizer from New York asks him), without support from the International, without official recognition as a union from the city, and with a standing court injunction against public employees being legally able to strike.

I Am A Man is about being part of events that grow into something larger, that begin to deal with issues that go beyond your local concerns. And so we watch Jones as the strike gets the support, and gets taken over, by local ministers, by the local and then the national NAACP, by AFSCME and the AFL-CIO, by the local Black-Panther-like "Invaders," and finally by King and the SCLC.

And that's the problem, not only with the strike but with the play. As the strike gets out of control, as the marches turn into riots, and as the local issues get played out in a national arena, Jones ceases to be a player, and becomes merely a passive spectator in events he doesn't care enough about, who can't get the other participants, with their own agendas, to be interested enough in the local issues of union recognition, wages, and work conditions.

And we, in the audience, are doubly stuck: like Jones, we are out of the loop in the national arguments; and, like the NAACP and union reps, we become less interested in the local issues.

Even our response to the assassination of King becomes tainted. King hovers offstage (like Jesus hovering off-screen in Ben Hur), his miraculous voice heard, orating, between scenes. Jones, squatting in a drunken stupor in his own room at the Lorraine Motel, hears the assassination taking place on the adjoining balcony. When the local minister, Rev. Moore (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.) comes to tell Jones that the strike has been settled, Jones asks whether King's life was worth an eight-cents-an-hour raise. "Everything is bigger than us, now," replies Reverend Moore. And everything is bigger -- bigger, and more interesting, than what the play can show, and than what the play can make us care about.

The production itself, by L. Kenneth Richardson, is spectacular, particularly because the designers (Donald J. Eastman, Frances Aronson and Loyce L. Arthur) are undeterred by the small proscenium at Plays & Players (the play has previously been produced on the larger stages of the Arena and the Goodman). A huge hurricane fence swings down from the ceiling and then is hauled into the flies. Tables and desks and chairs swirl on and off the stage on a turntable. A blues joint on Beale Street dissolves cinematically into the truck depot, which dissolves into a funeral in a storefront church, which dissolves into a union hall, which dissolves into the mayor's office. The first five minutes of the play pass in a whirl of choreography, scene changes, and blues singing, without a single word of on-stage dialogue.

And then there are the Brechtian devices, some useful (projected dates, photos, newspaper headlines, etc.), and some confusing -- as when the ubiquitous amplified bluesman (Olu Dara) speaks single lines of dialogue for the characters, or when the voice of an unnamed shadowy collaborator (some times on stage, sometimes not) is heard, electronically altered, over the loudspeakers.

Like all this swirling and clattering, the acting is at a fever pitch. Characters are constantly telling each other off. Jones tells off, and flashes, the racist mayor (Andrew Boyer); Jones' wife (La Tonya Borsay) tells him off; Reverend Moore and Jones tells each other off; the labor organizer from New York (Paul Meshejian, in an impeccable portrayal) tells off the mayor for being a Jew who had converted to redneck Episcopalianism, and calls him a "smarmy backwoods pharaoh"; the Invader (Robert Christophe) calls Willen, the black representative of the International (Herb Downer), an Uncle Tom and an Oreo, and Willen tells him off spectacularly in return.

Everyone in this play is in everyone else's face. As a result, the play, ironically, isn't in our face at all. It shouts and swirls, and makes us wonder whether it's all worth the extra eight cents an hour.

-- Cary M. Mazer