Choreographer Lawrence M. Jackson scores the highest points in the New York premiere of Seth Panitch’s Separate and Equal, which opened this afternoon at 59E59 Theaters. In this play about a racially charged basketball game in Birmingham, AL, in 1951, the three black and three white teenage players flow back and forth across the performance space in what appears to be a slow motion modern dance. No ball is used; the moves are all pantomimed. Jackson is given a nice assist by Tom Wolfe who composed original jazz to set the mood and intensify the action.
Unfortunately the player in this creative effort who is responsible for the greatest foul is Panitch. His 85-minute script, which he directs, is more a sketch than a developed play, and he manages to slam-dunk every racial stereotype of the south in that era. You’ll hear the expected name calling, like nigger and cracker, see the standard characters like the long-suffering black mother who works as a maid for the superior -acting white lady, and an elderly black man who is called Uncle by the bigoted white police officer. Those elements were part of the segregated South, of course, but they are overplayed in this short work, which was inspired by testimonials from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Attempts to fill out the story come from flashbacks, during which the non-involved characters lie on the floor while the action is spotlighted. The one involving a lynching is nicely stylized, but all of these efforts fall short of real plot development. The show felt much, much longer than 85 minutes.
Production designer Matthew Reynolds has made good use of the small Theater B, with seating surrounding the performance space to form a rectangle and give a gym-like sense. Two blank “backboards” are at opposite ends of the “court” and media designer Maya Champion makes good use of them, starting with the signs that greet the audience before the play — on one a drinking fountain with the word COLORED and the other an identical fountain with the word WHITE. The division is established from the start. When video is added, nets appear, with a white hand or black sinking a shot. It’s easy to feel a game is being played. In this case, the game just happens to be illegal because whites and blacks were forbidden to play on the same court.
The cast manages to give good performances in spite of the weak script. I checked the program to see how many of the players were dancers and didn’t see dance in any of their bios. They have the fluidity and timing of pros. Their game sequences were the highlight of the show.
Separate and Equal is produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP. It plays a limited engagement through Sept. 30.