Nourishing Theater

There ought to be a special Tony award given for Most Evocative Use of Food in a Drama or Comedy. Some of the contenders might be Tina Howe's The Art of Dining, wherein food becomes the subject of two restaurateurs' anxieties; Nicky Silver's The Food Chain, in which a character desperately tries to assuage his sense of abandonment with heaps of cookies and crackers; and Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends, in which a healthy marriage is signaled by the two spouses' verbal appreciation of fine cuisine. In each case, food is not only talked about, it appears on stage; and in each case, we in the audience are expected to understand that what's really at stake isn't some essential amino acid so much as a spiritual nutrient like love or self-esteem. On stage, we might eventually decide, food is never just food, and characters regularly eat metaphors. And woe to the stage figures who, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, have nothing to choose from but radishes and turnips. I've seen another play where food counts for something larger, and this one has an added benefit: At the end of the show we're invited to come onstage and eat. Bob Devin Jones' Uncle Bends: a home-cooked negro narrative at American Stage is a satisfying concoction even if you don't like rice and beans. There are several parts to the show: Jones' cooking, his singing and his impersonation of several African-American characters.

The cooking (naturally) has a metaphorical intent: The rice and beans are mixed together just as black and white theatergoers are asked to join each other in the show-closing meal. And, as Jones points out early in the performance, you can hold a pot of beans so that the white beans or the black beans are on top, but if you hold it sideways, that "puts everyone in harmony, first among equals." In case the point isn't taken, Jones makes it again at the end of the evening, when he mixes black, brown, red and white beans together and then compares the result with what's in his heart and in the audience. The message is clear: Peace comes with the end of hierarchies and our acceptance of the mix.

Jones' singing is as ingratiating as his theory of cooking. While guitarist Vincent Simms accompanies him, he punctuates his monologues with blues and gospel hymns that allude, directly or not, to the difficulties of African-American life throughout much of American history. Jones the singer has been spending so much "time workin' for my freedom" that he "ain't got time to die." He remembers how someone's grandpa "told my grandpa, "gonna lynch your ass on fire," but he's convinced that "If I live right, I know that heaven will be my reward."

Jones reminds himself that "You can't hurry God/ No no no you gotta wait," and he asks, "Lord don't you move that mountain/ But give me the strength to climb?" The subtext of all the songs is suffering and the repeated experience of obstacles. The singer, however, is indomitable, finding in God a stronger ally than even the most oppressive white society can withstand. The significance of the lyrics is ironically shaped by Jones' unassertive singing style. It's as if he's determined not to inflame any passions in his audience, as if he wants us to understand the impact of racism, but without anger or despair. Let's be sensible, he seems to suggest; let's be too sensible to make these mistakes again.

The monologues: These make up the majority of the evening, and, at their best, affect us more forcefully than anything else Jones does on Allen Loyd's multileveled wooden set. First he plays Felony Jones, who was a cook for a railroad dining car on the day that President-elect Franklin Roosevelt came on board and ordered Indian meal pancakes. Then he's 15-year-old Jimmy Back, a shoeshine boy of the 1940s who remembers how his father taught him that "all jobs are honorable." As Ain't Tannie, whose husband was lynched "exactly 26 feet from this here rocker," Jones tells how a church was forced to hold a funeral service for an AIDS victim; and as Uncle Roy, he explains how God distributed colors among the various races.

Jones moves from character to character with quiet confidence, using only a slight costume change to suggest his newest persona. It's not always clear why one character succeeds another — sometimes they seem quite unrelated — but Jones' fine acting, if nothing else, gives the evening a broader coherence. And of course, there's the meal that's slowly cooking all through the production.

Jones' most potent impersonations come last. As Kizzie Love, a woman born in 1838 in the slave-holding South, he/she talks about becoming a "breeder" whose little girl Ola was taken from her after three days. Then Jones becomes Ola, renamed Jo Anne on one of the plantations she was sold to. Jo Anne feels that her lost mother is calling her to escape from the plantation: "She would sometimes be in the clouds, in the rustle of the morning as it hid behind the sun or as a soft whisper in my ears ... I hear my mama's voice sayin' go on, press on, keep goin', be on whatcha' gonna be. Aim beyond heaven. You gotta cross that river chil'."

She escapes — and becomes an essential engineer on the Underground Railroad. Thanks to Jones' extraordinary acting, we find both Kizzie's and Ola's stories gripping and heart-rending. This is first-class theater, reaching deeply into its audience.

And then the show is over and it's time to eat. By this moment it's clear that what we've experienced is genuine political theater, of a different kind than we're used to perhaps, but nonetheless effective. We've met an entire society of characters in Jones' monologues; we've acknowledged their suffering and their endurance and their faith; and now we're celebrating their existence with a shared meal.

There's something primal here too, something gently mythological and also suffused with forgiveness. Food may be a metaphor, but when black and white spectators join together for this meal, a real and meaningful communion takes place.

Which is the point of Jones' quietly uplifting play.

Contact Mark E. Leib at mark.leib @weeklyplanet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.