The play is set in the 1950s, in a simple South Side Chicago apartment dominated by a devout, Bible-thumping mother. If that time and locale sound familiar, it's because, up to this point, we might be describing Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. But whereas Hansberry's classic drama resounds with life, Phillip Hayes Dean's The Sty of the Blind Pig, the current offering at the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, quivers with death.
There is too much of death about Alberta Warren. Living in the controlling shadow of her arthritic tigress of a mother, the repressed Alberta finds her only creative release in writing obituaries and delivering eulogies. For the first several minutes, as we come to know these two, the play seems to be spinning its wheels. All this exposition is getting us nowhere. Then something magical occurs: A blind street singer arrives at the Warren apartment. (Don't ask how; he just does.) Blind Jordan is looking for a woman named Grace Waters. Grace doesn't live in this building, but no matter. Jordan soon decides that Alberta will serve quite nicely as a soulmate.
Who is Blind Jordan, anyway? Your guess is as good as mine, or even the playwright's. Perhaps he personifies the death that Alberta finds so comforting, or maybe he's the breath of life that Alberta so lacks. Her hostile mother (who believes that men are lower than dogs) accuses Jordan of being the devil. Any, or all, of these labels might, or might not, be correct. But one thing is certain: This enigmatic, polarizing magnet of a character provides sheer theater. From the moment Jordan ambles onto the stage, you cannot avert your eyes. He doesn't have to raise his voice; he doesn't need a bravura soliloquy. His mysterious presence commands attention.
But then, this entire play -- which was first produced by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1971 -- is fraught with mystery. Except for the opening scene, Dean is that rare playwright who opts to tell us too little rather than too much. He leaves it to the actors to fill in the gaps, which they do here with great relish. As Blind Jordan, Ron Himes is an intriguing oxymoron: He is casually threatening, loosely taut. There's not a trace of menace in his performance, yet everything he does builds to an underlying sense of foreboding.
Then there is Linda Kennedy as the feisty mother. In last month's Black Rep production of Conversations on a Dirt Road, Kennedy was bewitchingly sultry. Here, her twisted old body looks like a reject from a pretzel factory. It's not simply the alteration of her appearance -- but the totality of her immersion in the role -- that impresses.
By contrast, Monica Parks' Alberta is less showy but equally realized. Late in the play, for instance, Alberta finds herself alone with Blind Jordan. As the troubadour sits on the living-room sofa, Alberta stands behind him, attracted in ways beyond her understanding. Clearly she wants to reach out and touch him. Instead, Parks begins to stroke the sofa wing next to his shoulder. Her caresses are more intimate than any physical contact could hope to be. Only Erik Kilpatrick as Alberta's uncle, Doc, fails to fill out his character. He's too straight-on. The humor and eccentricity are missing.
It's Doc who asks, "Why can't people leave things alone?" Not only is that one of the play's most pertinent questions, it's a reminder that The Sty of the Blind Pig, rich though it may be in symbolism, ultimately is about people: Wounded people, maimed in both body and spirit. Shadowy people with tricks up their pockets. This deep vein of a production is yet another confirmation that the Black Rep is delivering the most consistently impressive theater in town.