Tuesday, April 09, 2002

'Gussie Mae' fascinating one-woman tour-de-force

By Joseph McDonough
Enquirer contributor

        “I come up in the misery of colored limitations . . . and a promise.” With these words Grandmama sums up her journey as a determined sharecropper's daughter in The Further Adventures of Gussie Mae in America, a powerful one-woman show by New York actor and playwright Letitia Guillory.

        Gussie Mae is actually a collage of four hour-long plays intended to pay tribute to the strength, endurance and faith of poor African-American women. As part of the Midwest Regional Black Theatre Festival, Ms. Guillory performed two of the pieces at the Cincinnati Arts Consortium. They were strong entries for the festival.

        When the audience enters the theater for “In America,” an old woman is already sitting in her rocker on the front porch of her east Texas farm. Smart and sharp-tongued Grandmama banters with the incoming audience members, especially timid souls who would prefer to sit quietly.

        Soon she takes us back to a time and place where the land itself meant everything to the Texas sharecroppers and their children. She allows us to experience with her the terrible loss at the death of her father, her uphill struggle to gain title to his fields, and her pain and emptiness in her loveless marriage.

        The second piece, “Gussie,” chronicles a young woman with six children who finds that the welfare system provides more obstacles than assistance. Ms. Guillory adds some welcome humor as she flips back and forth between welfare mom Gussie and Heather, the earnest but totally clueless white social worker.

        What could ultimately have been an amusing but predictable bit of political polemics instead takes a more interesting tragic turn when Gussie finds a lump in her breast. The play whirls on to a breathless conclusion through her frustrations as Gussie worries what will happen to her and her children.

        Ms. Guillory is a gifted actor and writer. Her words and actions blend beautifully (assisted by Jeffrey Miller's able direction) as she uses dance, poetry, song and especially compelling characterization to tell her stories. (Her quick but fluid transformation from Grandmama to a young woman in “In America” is mesmerizing.) She never indulges her characters in self-pity, but instead allows them to honestly express themselves as they find the inner resolve to maintain hope throughout their struggles.

        The Midwest Regional Black Theatre Festival continues through Sunday with other productions at the Arts Consortium (1515 Linn St.), Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater. Call (513) 241-6060 for schedules and information or visit www.cincyblacktheatre.com.


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