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February 19, 2011 Published in Arts & Style, Other News

No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs

By Kristi Shelloner

Marissa Moody as Joyce Cheeks, DeJeannette Horne as Rawl Cheeks, Aeshia Brown as Matoka Cheeks, Lolita-Marie as Mattie Cheeks (Photo: Ari McSherry)

The title makes you squirm. The play makes you writhe and when Aunt Cora finally roars out her pain and humiliation towards the end of Act One, it is a relief for the audience that she gives voice to the enormity of what they are feeling.

Playwright John Redwood grew up in Brooklyn, and married a woman who spoke Yiddish, according to his daughter Ronda Redwood-Ray. The characters in "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs," which is being performed by the Port City Playhouse at the LABS at Convergence in Alexandria on Quaker Lane, were loosely based on real people in Redwood’s life. Aunt Cora was his grandfather’s youngest sister, the youngest of seven. Redwood-Ray remembers her father as a “laid-back, kind of goofy man” who, nevertheless, wrote depressing plays. When she asked him why his works were so depressing, he said, “Sometimes history is depressing.” In addition to writing plays and being a father, he was a U.S. Marine, and had advanced degrees in history and religion.

Redwood's is not a play for the faint-hearted but it is a powerful piece of theater that everyone should see. It is also the most professional community theater performance I have seen in 30 years.

Yaveni Aarohnson (David Berkenbilt) is a Jew slightly older than middle age. He is “studying” folks for his research on the abuses of Jews and “Negroes” in 1949 Halifax, North Carolina. He alights in the middle of the Cheeks family and bears witness to irrevocable events that lead to the mind-numbing choices faced by all human beings living in intolerable circumstances in order to protect their families, their husbands, and their children. It is a play about courage and strength. It is raw. It will make you cry and it will make you celebrate the bonds that tie us to each other.

Kecia A. Campbell as Aunt Cora, Lolita-Marie as Mattie Cheeks (Photo: Ari McSherry)

Aunt Cora, played hauntingly by Kecia Campbell, is a spectral presence, much beloved by Mattie, the mother of the Cheeks family. Cora is the archetypal presence of loss and grief; she is made unreal by her suffering. She scares most people, in her black veil and widow’s weeds, her humming and strange appearances. In the end, she returns life, and a future, to Mattie’s family.

Matoka (Aeisha Brown) preserves innocence throughout the story as the eleven-year-old daughter of Mattie and Rawl. Brown is a ten-year old fifth grader at Springwoods Elementary School. She is absolutely delightful, completely professional and gives the family its redeeming levity and naturalness, with  her boisterousness, her humor, and the more pedestrian conflicts of sibling rivalry.

Marissa Moody, a senior at West Potomac High School, plays Matoka’s 17-year old sister, Joyce. Moody’s calm dignity and cold, crisp resolve to speak the truth, is the moral voice of the play. She speaks of things as they are, and as they should be. Her performance is simple, elegant and cuts like a knife.

Mattie Cheeks, played by Lolita_Marie, is the pole around which the family orbits. Her powerful performance is unmarred by sentimentality of any sort. She neatly gathers the reality of a Black woman in the segregated south, and makes the hardest choices a woman is ever liable to face. That she does so with dignity, clarity, and moral indefatigability, pays tribute to her

David Berkenbilt as Yaveni Aaronsohn, Lolita-Marie as Mattie Cheeks, DeJeannette Horne as Rawl Cheeks (Photo: Ari McSherry)

strength as an actress and the strength that totally committed and loving women brought to African American families during some of the dark nights of America’s soul. Marie's presence on stage is electric, her humor and warmth palpable. As Mattie she flawlessly,  seamlessly and generously gives of her strength and her vulnerability to the audience.

DeJeannette Horne plays Rawl Cheeks, the father of Joyce and Matoka and Mattie’s beloved husband. His dreams are to see his girls go to “at least one year” of college. He leaves the family to dig up graves for white folks in order to earn the money for his ladies' education. When he returns three months later, the landscape of his family is altered and he does not know why. Horne exudes, by turns, comfort, devotion, wisdom, warmth, a little goofiness and a great, gentle strength. He is easy to watch. He made every moment believable.

David Berkenbilt (Yaveni Aaronshohn) is the play’s putative narrator. Mattie is constantly reminding him to “not get up between her and her family.” He knows all and yet can say nothing to help this family he has come to understand. He draws the parallels between the oppression of Black people in American and the suffering and oppression of Jews in America. His experience with the Cheeks reconciles him to a fuller commitment to his own people and faith, (no more pork chops!) Berkenbilt brings gravitas and gentleness to his role as Yaveni.  Berkenbilt calls us remember to look and bear witness that we may become more fully human.

There are seven more performances of this play. Don’t miss it. It is powerful, evocative and painful; it is also heartwarming, funny and transcendent. There are no false notes here.

Performances are scheduled for Feb. 18, 19, 25, 26 and March 1,4 and 5, at 8:00 p.m.
Matinees are performed on February 27 and March 6 at 3:00 p.m.
Porty City Playhouse Telephone: 703-998-6260

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