Race couldn't be more timely. Thursday's premiere of a stage version of Studs Terkel's 1992 book of interviews about race relations came the day after a group of black public administrators announced it was pulling its convention from Tampa because of the city's poor civil rights record.
Audience members were confronted by a pair of signs outside the theater. One sign read "Whites Only;" the other read "Colored Only." Seating for the play was segregated. Thursday, director L. Kenneth Richardson himself was in charge of enforcing the policy, at one point telling a white man who took a seat in the wrong section that "You can't sit there, my friend."
That bruising bit of audience participation was effective, and the relevance of the subject gave punch to Race, which is a University of South Florida theater department production. So did the ambitious multimedia presentation. The stage was flanked by scaffolding stacked with video monitors, upon which played a sequence of provocative images. Slides were projected on screens. The music went from Al Jolson and Swanee to Sly and the Family Stone.
Despite its energy and idealism, Race was a frustrating work of theater. The technical execution was rough around the edges, and the quality of the cast was uneven, a mix of experienced actors and novices, some of whose lines were delivered so weakly as to be inaudible. Performances ranged from Phyllis McEwen Taylor's rock-solid portrayal of a Bible-toting black activist to Louis Greto's hyperactive Robert De Niro imitation as a bigoted prizefighter named Kid Pharoah.
The main problem was with Terkel's book and the stage adaptation by Jose Yglesias. Theater people have been tempted before by the works of Chicago's gift to talk radio, with mixed results (Working was made into a musical and had a brief Broadway run in 1978). His oral histories contain powerful material, but they tend to resist successful adaptation.
Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession is about 400 pages long, and Yglesias could barely scratch the surface in turning it into an 80-minute play. The book has stories of more than 90 people; the play has fewer than 20. Also, because each of the book's interviews is a self-contained story, the work as a whole is not inherently dramatic. Nor is Yglesias' adaptation, which lacks narrative drive.
Terkel and Yglesias have much in common. Both were influenced by the democratic-socialism of the Depression; both were active in the civil rights movement. To a great extent, both are classically liberal _ or "progressive," as a character in Race calls himself, finding that preferable to being identified as liberal. And in their liberalism is a weakness of book and play, both of which end with expressions of guarded optimism that seem inconsistent with the bleak assesments of the state of race relations made by most of the characters. The ending _ a white man and black woman embrace _ seems contrived. Where is the despair that came through so loud and clear from the rest of the characters? Happy endings aren't always the best endings.
Apparently, director and writer disagreed on the ending. Yglesias said in a session with the audience after Thursday's performance that "in dramatic art, you don't send people out feeling worse than when they came in." Richardson said he countered the upbeat ending by running video clips of race-baiting white politicians from the '50s and '60s. That tension lends a fascinating undercurrent to Race.
The play, adapted by Jose Yglesias from a book by Studs Terkel, runs today, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Jaeb Theater of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $3 and $6. Call 221-1045.