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Theater: The Upper Room
by JONATHAN ABARBANEL
2005-03-16

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Playwright: David Barr III

At: Pegasus Players at Truman College

Phone: ( 773 ) 878-9761; $17-$25

Runs through: April 10

David Barr III's moving new play places him among a handful of dramatists—such as Thomas Gibbons, author of Permanent Collection and Bee, Luther, Hatchee—able and willing to create black and white characters of equal complexity and sympathy. Their ecumenicism has a cost: Barr and Gibbons have been criticized by those who feel white authors cannot create true black characters, and black authors should not create sympathetic white characters.

In The Upper Room, African-American author Barr chooses an unlikely hero: an Austrian Jewish refugee from the Nazis who teaches art at a small Negro college in Virginia from 1939 to 1945. Viktor Lowenfeld may be unlikely but he's real: The Upper Room is inspired by fact. Lowenfeld established the Art Department at Hampton Institute ( now Hampton University ) and nurtured notable American artist John Biggers. The glory of this play is that skin color disappears. It's the story of an inspiring teacher and those he inspired, and it supercedes race.

Barr doesn't ignore racial issues, but chooses to emphasize human universals over specific politics. For example, as the play progresses Lowenfeld and his wife receive increasingly desperate news about their doomed relatives in Nazi Austria. Thus, whenever a character suggests that a white man cannot understand the racial prejudice and violence against American blacks, the audience knows that Lowenfeld fully understands without Barr ever needing to underline.

The play unfolds against a wonderful texture of African-American painting, period jazz recordings and the evocative chant of Hebrew prayers that frame Lowenfeld's emotional conflicts, and emphasize his differentness in the South of World War II. Barr manipulates facts and time for dramatic purposes—for example, Biggers and his fellow students take six years to graduate because that's the play's span and Barr doesn't want to introduce new faces—but he never short changes character development.

Under director Alex Levy, The Upper Room is well-acted and powerful. Scott Aiello as Lowenfeld doesn't rely on Yiddishisms, making Lowenfeld's pain and courage palpable along with his charm. Jenn SavaRyan ( sic ) is effective as his anguished wife, not quite as adaptable to American life. Andre Teamer blossoms before us as John Biggers, the play's narrative voice. Gary Saipe reveals his true sympathies slowly as the cagey, white college president. Doubling as the chanting cantor, he's learned his Hebrew well. Cecil Burroughs is the straight-laced college dean, whose inflexibility masks his aspirations for himself and his students. Kristala Pouncy and Taj McCord complete the cast as Biggers' classmates.

Jack Magaw's handsome scenic design features broad platforms and periaktoi, a rarely-used scene changing device dating back to Greek theater. Great idea, but a bit clumsy in operation on opening night. Denise Karczewski's atmospheric pools of light really focus and move the action.


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