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My Occasion of Sin

Monica Bauer's overstuffed play feels like more of a first draft, full of intriguing ideas.

Rosebud Baker and Royce Johnson
in My Occasion of Sin
(© Ben Hider)
Monica Bauer's My Occasion of Sin, now at Urban Stages, is not bad as a first draft of a play, showing off the author's passion for music as well as for the racial politics of her native Omaha, where she lived through tumultuous events nearly 45 years ago.

But too often she imposes a debate play onto characters that haven't been properly developed, resulting in scenes laced with arguments that come out of nowhere, and voiced by characters who speak the language of stereotypes. The final product, directed here by Frances Hill, never seems blended into an organic whole.

Some of the actors are better than others at rising above their material. Rosebud Baker, as a young, white music student named Mary Margaret, plays her role with enough humor and youthful energy that she is sorely missed when she's offstage for too long. And although it's never believable that Mary Margaret is as intelligent about jazz as she becomes in a few short months, Baker makes you willing to overlook that.

Likewise, Royce Johnson doesn't look old enough to pass as the World War II hero that many of the characters believe him to be, but he has a strong presence as Luigi, an African American jazz musician unwillingly caught up in the race riots of the late 1960s.

Johnson is even able to inject some moments of true dramatic tension into his scenes with Janice Hall, who plays Helen, the white co-owner of a local music store that she runs with her husband, George (Scott Robertson).

Danielle Renee Thompson, in perhaps the most difficult role, is Vivian, a 14-year-old African American girl who inadvertently sparks the riot at the climax of the play. Not only does she avoid the cloying habits of most adult actors who play children; at her best, her Vivian holds the stage with sass, verve, and just the right measure of innocence.

The playwright tries to pack a lot into her piece from the origins of rock, the technical complexities of jazz, economics versus justice, love versus revolution, the history of racial violence in Omaha from 1919 to 1969, but she never does so as smoothly as one would wish.


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