Theater Review - The Green Book takes a page from Civil Rights era

Theatrical Outfit production too heavy on history and light on drama

Where the hit film The Help begins with an outsider's perspective on the black community at the time of Jim Crow, Theatrical Outfit's new play The Green Book presents African-Americans as the insiders looking out. Playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey addresses compelling racial issues from the mid-20th century, including black support of segregation and the impact of the European Holocaust. Too often The Green Book feels more like a list of talking points than a cohesive drama, but the material's strengths emerge in its second act.

Set in 1953, the drama centers around The Negro Motorist Green Book, an actual Segregation-era travel guide to safe places for African-Americans to eat and lodge. In Jefferson City, Mo., Dan and Barbara Davis (Archie Lee Simpson and Donna Biscoe) list their residence in The Green Book, offering free rooms for African-American travelers. Though outside the South, their Missouri town has the nickname "Little Dixie" after its majority of post-Civil War white settlers.

An argument nearly breaks out when one guest, a soldier's wife (Sharisa Whatley), proudly insists on paying for their stay and the Davises just as proudly refuse to accept her money. The play's first half-hour provides more exposition than dramatic buildup as the Davises and their upbeat college-bound daughter Neena (Veanna Black) anticipate an upcoming book reading from renowned black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois.

The action doesn't really start until the arrival of Keith (Neal A. Ghant), an upwardly mobile traveling salesman for The Green Book who makes shocking statements such as, "Segregation, as far as I'm concerned, can last forever." Keith believes that "separate but equal" will lead to business opportunities for the rising African-American middle class, and eagerly capitalizes on them. As Keith, Ghant's slick salesmanship and dubious morals give The Green Book a much-needed jolt of charisma.

Directed by Freddie Hendricks, the drama takes a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? twist when the Davis' latest guest turns out to be a white man. Polish Holocaust survivor Victor Lansky (Barry Stewart Mann) refuses to stay at a local hotel for its "No Negroes" policy, although the Davis' guests question his presence. The second act primarily consists of a long conversation between Victor and Keith. Their debate crackles partly through Victor's powerful Holocaust stories, and partly because the two rich characters compare their competing philosophies of accommodating versus confronting evil. Mann portrays Victor as frail but righteous and prevents the character from seeming too saintly.

The Victor versus Keith debate evokes Theatrical Outfit's lively two-actor play The Sunset Limited, but once Victor defines the word "pogrom," the content becomes too abstract. The rest of the characters, however credibly played, don't contribute very much to the action. Dwight Green (Rob Cleveland), The Green Book's publisher, superfluously appears at the beginning and end of the play, but primarily to fix the play in time and establish the guide's don't-leave-home-without-it value.

The actors can't do much with clunky lines like Neena's early declaration, "What a day this will be to remember!" The Green Book never generates the kind of emotional impact that will draw the fascinating documentary-style details together. Prune away The Green Book's tinny dialogue, redundant roles and historical footnotes, and you'll find a great one-act play in there.

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