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"The Electronic Negro" and "Sister Son/ji"

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The University of Pittsburgh's Kuntu Repertory Theatre dips into the tumultuous period before its birth with a pair of one-acts by a couple of disparate stars of the Black Arts Movement. Both directed by Kuntu founder and producing artistic director Vernell A. Lillie, the unrelated plays take very different looks at the African-American experience through, respectively, male and female eyes.

The opener, Ed Bullins' "The Electronic Negro" (which used a far more offensive "n word" in its original 1968 production), is a rapidly paced drama with comic overtones. Indeed, it seems more like a drawn-out sketch than an actual play, though there's plenty of conflict. Most of that is between Mr. Jones, an amiable instructor in a writing class, and Mr. Carpentier, who goes beyond the normal meaning of arrogant.

The alleged student (played by a supercharged Anton Floyd) not only talks and (metaphorically) walks all over the hapless Jones (Chad Smith, credible as the reluctant academic). He also does battle with the English language, social sciences and our credulity. Are we supposed to believe his many stated achievements, his supposed upper-middle-class background, his fascination with a particular sexual perversion -- or question them? Is he a fake -- or a metaphor taking the play into absurdism? Interestingly, he does draw some of the students to his "side," but no one seems to actually "win."

The longer and often more solid half of the bill is Sonia Sanchez's "Sister Son/ji" (1969), a one-woman show about one woman's life. For different performances, the intense role is traded between two actresses, Salome Mergia and Tonita L. Davidson.

Though most of the action is seemingly set during the 1960s, we follow the title character from college days to senior citizenship -- with sex, birth, conflict, black separatism, death and lots of anger. After a wordless but joyous entrance via African dance, our heroine becomes an old woman telling her story in flashback. Most of it hits the mark, but the climactic tale of a battle in Mississippi is what? Missed metaphor or misfired prophecy?

Sanchez weaves some lovely lines into the triumphs and agonies of her protagonist, who in the performance I saw was ably personified by Ms. Mergia. The design staff also deserves a hand for evoking a dreamy atmosphere on a budget: scenic designer Kenneth M. Ellis, costume designer Heddie Thomas, lighting designer Jason Perony, sound designer Wayne Gaines and production manager Renee Sorrell.

 

"The Electronic Negro" and "Sister Son/ji" continue through April 17. Kuntu Repertory Theatre at Alumni Hall (seventh floor), 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org

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