‘Movie Star’ shines brightly on DownStage

Williamstheatre presented Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White” at the AMT DownStage on Oct. 24-26. Barely an hour long, this short play has a unique and experimental style which distinguishes it from its more realistic contemporaries. From the first scene onwards, each scene comes to life in two separate worlds: in film and in “real” time.

The Williamstheatre production was directed by Tina Shepard, who added selections from Kennedy’s best-known play, “Funnyhouse of a Negro.” Kennedy first opened “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White” in 1976. Much of her work is based on her own life, and her plays often explore the labyrinth of confusion that can result from the differences in the conditions of the American racial condition and the relationship inside the family.

The play centers on the life of Clara (Rachael Holmes ’03), a black woman who desires to become a writer. Clara is also pregnant and feels trapped in her lifestyle. She is going through an emotional period in her life in which she has problems with her mother (Kamille Williams ’03) and brother (Daniel Gura ’06), as well as with her husband (Eze Redwood). Clara’s lines are echoed throughout the entire play within three movies: “Now, Voyager,” “Viva, Zapata” and “A Place in the Sun.”

The movies respectively take place on a ship, at a window and bed and in a boat.

“Now, Voyager” stars Bette Davis (Heather Brubaker ’03) and Paul Henreid (Edgardo Costas-Bracero ’06), and it is a Cinderella story about a woman who goes abroad and returns as a beautiful and groomed woman. “Viva, Zapata” features Jean Peters (Cyndi Wong ’04) and Marlon Brando (Shehryar Qureshi ’04) in a love story about a Mexican Revolutionary leader. Finally, Montgomery Clift (Adam Zamora ’05) and Shelly Winters (Elizabeth Dimenno ’05) star in “A Place in the Sun,” a strange story about love and murder. The play has one scene from each movie being played out on one stage, while Clara’s voice and personal story hover in the background.

Ironically, while Clara is the main character, the Columbia Pictures woman (Rosemary Kendrick ’05) states matter-of-factly at the opening of the first act that Clara plays only “a bit part.” Clara begins off stage and throughout the play slowly channels herself more fully into the scenes. However, she is never part of the action – she always remains on the outskirts or in the wings.

At the outset of each movie segue, all the characters could be seen offstage, being prepared by a stagehand (Sarah Martin ’05). As the actors transfer themselves to the stage, the audience could plainly see Martin adjusting the spotlight, creating special lighting effects.

The play often disconcerted the audience, alternating swiftly between what was real and what was part of the movie. It was easy to forget that Clara and her problems were really the salient point of the plot because her lines were often eaten up by the movie scenes, making her even more of a marginal character. Clara’s voice echoed throughout the movie, yet her life does not, and it was easy to overlook the fact that she is a character in the play.

The acting was convincing, with Holmes delivering a quiet, longing and confused Clara. Additionally noteworthy, Brubaker’s lithe dramatic movement and speech were gracefully integrated into each scene. More successful than the acting, however, was the creation of a movie star world with lighting and set. The light and set design by Julie Seitel, as well as Deborah Brothers’ costumes, were effective in enhancing the symbolically-charged atmosphere. Audience member Susi Mitchell ’04 commented, “I found the visual contrasts of the black and white in the set and costumes interesting – especially in the costumes of Brubaker and Costas-Bracero. They lended a starkness to the play, which made the actual story more prominent.”

While much of the audience left a bit confused, the play seemed to evoke serious thought into what its message boiled down to: a black woman, pregnant and divorced, with her brother on his deathbed, the performance of three different movies and the inclusion of a notebook in which Clara tries to write every day. The play was perplexing, without a firm sense of continuity. However, it brought to the surface questions of a black woman’s role in society, as well as relations between family members.