It's fitting that August Wilson's last play, Radio Golf, is about the future of the Hill District. As developers (and a mayoral candidate) plot to raze the old buildings and replace them with a shopping center, an old lunatic stands in their way, claiming ownership of a broken old house slated for demolition. The backdrop is political and complex, but the story is rich and emotional: The dialogue sparks, the characters shine. The audience, captivated by the pitfalls of urban politics, are also riveted by the personal dramas.
Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail is also a play about the Hill District. Based on the true story of Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis (alias Dr. Goddess, CP columnist), Dr. Goddess is about Ellis lying in front of a bulldozer in the Hill, preventing a controversial demolition. For this she is arrested and detained, though the case is finally thrown out. Ellis explores this chain of events through song, dance, hip-hop, slam poetry, light puppetry, video projection and comic sketches. As writer and director of this ambitious project, Ellis explores the components of our troubled zeitgeist: suburban fear and ignorance, the cultural damage done by the Civic Arena, and the impending doom being brought by slot machines.
I mention Radio Golf not because Ellis aspires to replace the late August Wilson (her reverence for the great playwright, her uncle, is clear) but to point out that Wilson covered similar territory and told a story. Ellis' creation, by contrast, is chaotic and meandering; it's a vague political potshot at virtually everything. It sneeringly vents frustration at the expense of any tangible narrative, and offers no solutions, except that we should give a damn. But if we don't know who these people are, if the personalities in this real-life struggle aren't as memorable as those in Wilson's fictional play, then why should we give a damn? Who, among the audience watching Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail, thinks that race preference, bus cutbacks and gambling addiction are good things?
There is no denying Ellis' many diverse talents: Her poetry, her exceptional singing voice, her choreography and incisive meditations make her a modern-day Renaissance woman. She has a large cast, limber dancers, marvelous singers, lighting effects, original music, and dedicated fans at her disposal. And unlike so many playwrights and their banal imaginings, Ellis has many important social missions: She has a higher reason to write. But with lofty callings come higher expectations, and the center does not yet hold.
Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail plays thru July 15, Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre, 5941 Penn Avenue, East Liberty. Tickets: 412/394-3353, www.drgoddess.com.