Conversation with a Kleagle
nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
February 17, 2006
Conversation with a Kleagle by Rudy Gray is one of those rare shows that is important enough and powerful enough to warrant strong support and a large audience even when a particular production isn’t top notch. In the case of this particular production, by 13th Street Repertory Company, the whole just doesn’t measure up to the sum of its rather impressive parts.
The program notes that this play won First Prize in the 2004 New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest. After seeing it performed, I can certainly appreciate the reason for this distinction. It is the tense and moving account of a black writer in 1920s America who passes for white in order to travel to Louisiana and meet with a Ku Klux Klan recruiter, known as a Kleagle. His identity is discovered, and he escapes relatively early in the play. As the play progresses, we watch in horror as the fallout from his infiltration unfolds. Pieces of his history are presented in flashback, and the man who helped him escape pays a terrible price.
Obviously, there are more than a few disturbing aspects of this play. Clearly evident is the corrupt Louisiana political system that turns a blind eye to the racial injustice, that is until it becomes financially beneficial to at least appear to crack down on the violence and mistreatment. Even more disturbing, and more important, is the casual demeanor of the Kleagle while discussing the absolute necessity of lynchings and claiming his heart-felt concern for the black community in the same breath. (Be warned, the “n-word” is used prolifically, but appropriately, in this play.) He easily, and with what he would call self-evident logic, compares the black citizens of the area to alligators (a vital part of the landscape as long as they stay in their place). The pride the Kleagle takes in both his mission and vision make my skin crawl. Indeed, much of this play’s power comes from its revelation of the true face and danger of racism, often hidden behind carefully crafted personal facades or strategically controlled government positions. It demonstrates the opportunity that remains to this day for unscrupulous people to manipulate the world around them and further a hidden agenda.
This entire production is good, but a bit raw. It feels more like watching a really good rehearsal. The energy is there, and the talent is there, but it doesn’t yet click together the way it should. Every single actor in this production has numerous moments to shine, and they should be proud of them. As the Kleagle, Chris Keogh is at his best when he is quietly describing his contemptible mission and when he is thundering away at the revealed writer. His performance goes a long way to making this production as unnerving as it is. The supporting characters of the various Klansmen are generally quite good. Unfortunately, there are so many flubbed lines, broken moments, and slight slips that the pace of the show gets repeatedly thrown off. These actors are talented, but haven’t yet reached consistency. Even Andrew Burns, as the writer John Watson, succumbs to this problem. He plays the character honestly and has wonderful, introspective moments, but he also has several times where he gives in to stock mannerisms or looks unsure of himself, slightly out of the moment that has been created around him.
The one notable exception is Blair Hicks as the writer’s savior, Tookie. Hicks is disturbingly real in this role. He commands attention every moment he is on the stage through the kind, conscientious attitude with which he imbues Tookie. His consistent and heart-wrenching performance is so true to life, it is agonizing to watch him. Aside from the loss he must endure, one of his most painful moments occurs when he comments in genuine surprise that he has discovered prejudiced people in Chicago just like in the South.
Cristina Alicea’s direction is fluid and serves this play well. The basic pacing of the production is effective, and she earns each moment of emotion and pain carefully. Julie Finch’s costumes are quite good and hold up well to the scrutiny presented by a very small theatre. Tom Harlan’s set is sparse and carefully crafted so that the various pieces can be moved and reconnected in a variety of ways to create everything from a bar to a train to a Chicago office. The remarkably smooth transitions in this play are equally due to the set, the direction, and the cast’s extremely effective handling of the set changes. Here too, unfortunately, there is inconsistency. There are two rifles, but one is a B-B-gun. The ropes they use are great, but the knife is slightly bent and clearly rubber. If everything were one way or the other (pristine or abstract), it would be fine. As it is, the inconsistencies become slightly distracting.
The saving grace is that this production runs for many weeks. There is simply too much talent involved in this production for it to just be good when it could be great. This play is an incredibly worthy piece of theatre, and my sincere hope is that the actors will find their groove and settle into a rhythm that will make this production everything it can be. However, even if they don’t, this is still an important evening of theatre that is worth your time.