Sidney Edwards in Bloodline Rumba.
Photo courtesy John Chenault.
By John Chenault
Directed by Nefertiti Burton
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2016 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
When we talk about racism in America, it has historically been about the divide between black and white, North and South, freedom and slavery. In his play Bloodline Rumba, being given its world premiere by the University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program, John Chenault examines the question in a slightly different cultural context.
Ernesto (Shaleen Cholera) is a Cuban-American doctor working in a New York City hospital in love with an African American co-worker Lola (Danielle Smart) who he is reluctant to introduce to his “white” Cuban grandmother. When he finds himself in the abandoned portion of the hospital that dates from the early years of the 20th century, he unexpectedly slips into the past. That story involves Sara (Sidney Edwards), a Cuban immigrant who worked in the same hospital in 1918 for Dr. Ramos (Casey Moulton). It delves even further back in time to reveal a tragic and violent past experience for Sara in Cuba that has surprising relevance to Ernesto’s life.
Racism is always a factor of class and political power, and Chenault’s scenario mixes insight with melodrama in engrossing fashion, although he allows too much academic didacticism when he should have allowed his well-drawn characters to carry the message. He is basically dramatizing the still dawning realization of the complexity of the American racial identity, in which all of us might be surprised by our family tree. The particulars of his conflict explicates the conflict between white and black Cubans, and he succinctly delivers a thumbnail portrait of the historical context of the inextricable relationship between the two factions and the ugly nature of the subjugation of the landowning class (white) over the working class (black).
It may be oversimplification of the undoubtedly more nuanced history, as all dramas inevitably are, but it is a pretty good story with a fairly satisfying resolution. The impact of the play owes a great deal to a magnetic lead performance from Sidney Edwards as Sara. Her beautifully realized physical presence evokes a time and place, (kudos to Zhanna Goldentul’s costumes) and her well-observed dialect calls attention to the heart of the theme, allowing Edwards to create a woman of uncommon strength and integrity. Shaleen Cholera also does nice work here, but Ernesto is not quite her match: the script gives him less depth by design; a seemingly shallow character brought enlightenment in a most unusual circumstance.
Casey Moulton is a dignified Dr. Ramos, while Ross Shenker and Paula, O. Lockhart also provide fine support in distinct contrasts of piety and evil in Sara’s flashbacks. Danielle Stuart is inconsistent in the smaller bookend role of Lola, but manages some spirit and humor. The performances include very effective dialect work under the direction of Gabrielle Castillo and Dru Pilmer, especially Ms. Edwards pronounced Cubano speech, although Mr. Cholera’s more subtle New York accent should also be noted.
Chenault’s theme is so very important in today’s toxic racial climate because it recognizes that the “melting pot” idea that has always defined American culture has been brewing for far too long to make racial purity anything but pure fantasy. Bloodline Rumba shows us that today’s racism is a lost cause – a desperate attempt to deny our poly-racial identity as a society.
Wednesday February 4, 8pm
Thursday February 5, 8pm
Friday February 6, 8pm
Saturday February 7, 8pm
Saturday, February 7, 3pm
Sunday February 8, 8pm
Tickets are $8 for UofL students, $12 for other students and alumni, faculty, staff and seniors and $15 for general admission.
University of Louisville Dept of Theater Arts
2314 South Floyd Street
Louisville, KY 40292
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.