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No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs

Adrienne Carter, Marcus Naylor,
Charis M. Wilson, and Elizabeth Van Dyke
in No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
A woman in a floor-length black dress and a thick black veil walks slowly across the stage, humming a gospel tune and carrying a lantern. It's a disconcerting sight, and its no wonder that young Matoka Cheeks (Charis M. Wilson) screams out in terror upon taking it in. John Henry Redwood's provocatively titled play, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs is an odd mixture of arresting images, melodramatic writing, bad directorial choices, and fine performances. On the whole, the production is both engaging and frustrating.

The play is set in 1949. Yaveni Aaronsohn (Jack Aaron) is in Halifax, North Carolina doing research for a book on the comparative racial suffering of Jews and Negroes. The project is greeted without much enthusiasm by the Cheeks, an African-American family living in Halifax. However, the money Yaveni is paying to conduct interviews with them is good, so they begrudgingly accommodate him.

"I'm not white," says Yaveni. "I'm Jewish." The distinction is one that the members of the Cheeks family treat skeptically. Yet the Jewish scholar becomes more and more a part of their lives, particularly after a series of traumatic incidents positions him as one of the family's closest confidants.

The play is, at times, quite moving. However, it also has a tendency towards didacticism. Its major weakness is that it never fully integrates Yaveni's story into the main narrative. The character delivers a long monologue in the second act that explains the play's title and is supposed to cement an understanding between Yaveni and members of the Cheeks family, yet the speech seems tacked on and out of context. While it gives Yaveni some needed background and motivation, it ultimately doesn't serve the play.

Michael Brown's set design is dominated by a large porch placed so far downstage that it fills up the small playing area, making nearly all of the action appear cramped. Israel Hicks' direction doesn't help much in this regard; he has his actors face front to deliver their lines way too often, hampering any onstage chemistry and connection between the characters.

Despite these limitations, the production features several fine performances. Elizabeth Van Dyke as matriarch Mattie Cheeks delivers a powerful, emotionally nuanced portrait of a strong woman who is pushed nearly to the breaking point. Adrienne Carter is no less impressive as daughter Joyce, a teenager on the verge of blossoming into a young woman; her facial expressions and body postures tell you all you need to know about the character. Rayme Cornell as Aunt Cora, the aforementioned woman in black, has a beautiful voice and a spirited energy that comes through in a poignant flashback.

No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs is a well-intentioned effort that falls short of its goal. Although it does address racism and anti-Semitism within a story that is often emotionally wrenching, the ending is a little too pat and the play ultimately comes across as simplistic.

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