`Hollywood Arms’

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 11, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Def Poetry Jam’

The first thing I knew I had to do before I headed

to the "Def Poetry Jam" was to try to put out of my head all

my existing notions and prejudices about current street culture and

why it doesn’t speak to me — this including hip-hop music and

rap. But I was completely unprepared for the exhilarating experience

that I enjoyed courtesy of hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur Russell

Simmons, and collaborator and director Stan Lathan. It was their idea

to present the vision of nine extraordinary multiracial poets, put

them together on one stage, and have their poetic presentations laced

together by the music spinning talents of rapping DJ Tendaji Lathan.

The young, talented, and tough-looking cast, all veterans of the HBO-TV

series "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry," is providing

Broadway with it first "slam." And a grand slam it is. The

heat and the beat of their often disquieting and disturbing poems

are discharged with gusto ready to empower, enlighten, and enrage

— but also ignite a positive audience response.

Even before the house lights dimmed, I noticed the number of young

people in the theater, representatives of all races, all ready to

welcome and embrace a daring departure from the traditional theater

experience. It may take a bit of convincing to make you believe that

your time will be rewarded by some of the most dynamic and passionate

bursts of rhyming prose you have ever heard declaimed in one space.

Tamika Harper, AKA Georgia Mae, a large and beautiful woman whose

frame is as full of dimension as her poetry, raps rhapsodically about

"Full Figure Potential," and later more seriously about responding

to an abusive relationship in the fierce, "Hit Like a Man."

All poems that give her the edge as the resident diva.

Poetri, his also generous frame supporting his even more generous

consideration of love in all its aspects, offers the hilarious "Dating

Myself" and wondering why and where all his "Money" keeps disappearing.

But nothing tops his thesis on "Krispy Kreme Kroissants" (catch

the three Ks), manufactured (he knows) to keep the black man "down

and round."

With her voluminous hair puffed and sculpted like a huge black halo

around her small, delicate face, Staceyann Chin, a New York resident

of Jamaican origin, makes an arresting agenda of gender with "Litany

of Desire," and "Passing" (for straight). Brooklynite

Lemon can’t keep the street smarts from informing gutsy poems like

"County of Kings" and "Shine," about the swim of a

black man who survives the sinking of the Titanic. Lemon shows his

comedic side in a hilarious duet with Latina Mayde Del Valle in "Tito

Puente" ("the Don Corleone of Latin America").

There is turbulence beneath the gentle delivery of the Palestinian-American

Suhier Hammad, who isn’t comfortable with labels as in "Exotic"

("but not erotic"). Self-worth is explored by Black Ice in

"410 Days in the Life," while self-doubt and rage are given

strenuous workouts by Steve Colman in "But" and "Terrorist

Threat." Perhaps my favorite poet would have to be Chinese-American

Beau Sia, whose lithe torso belies his combative personality and ferocious

delivery of "The Asians Are Coming, The Asians Are Coming,"

and other comforting issues.

There is no way to inform you any better about the excitement of hearing

these skilled performing poets recite their poems either alone, in

duets, trios, or as a company, in a theater filled with attentive

listeners who hang on every word. The only thing more to say is that

Bruce Ryan’s classy set design serves the artists, as do their funky

and grungy garb. So let these terrific award-winning poets win you

over. This may be the single most exciting show to open on Broadway

this season. HHHH

— Simon Saltzman

Def Poetry Jam, Longacre Theater, 220 West 48 Street,

New York. $25 to $65. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page
`Hollywood Arms’

Lot of fans were interested when comedienne Carol Burnett

told all in her 1986 autobiography "One More Time." Fewer,

I suspect, will be interested in the dramatic adaptation "Hollywood

Arms," that Burnett wrote with her daughter, the late Carrie Hamilton.

What works effectively within a literary narrative rarely works in

a stage play. "Hollywood Arms" works so ineffectively, that

one wonders why its famed director Harold Prince couldn’t do more

to speed things up, suggest some cutting of pointless scenes and even

the elimination of some unnecessary characters. One can see the script

working better as a Movie of the Week. Although the play is courageously

blunt, it is also humorless and packs little wallop. It is, to its

credit, an obviously heartfelt memoir of a real person we admire.

The play, like the book, chronicles the early life of Burnett and

the years she spent living a hand-to-mouth existence, first in the

care of her crotchety and eccentric maternal grandmother and then

their life re-bonding with her alcoholic despondent mother who abandoned

them. Act I, which is set in 1941, reveals the spunky young Carol

(now called Helen, and nicely played by Sara Niemietz) remaining chipper

while surviving on welfare with "Nanny,"(overplayed with empowerment

by Linda Lavin) until they leave their low-rent Texas apartment for

the low-rent Hollywood Hills apartment that her mother lives in.

Despite the authorship, don’t expect laughs or even any tears during

the torpid doings that gets a little comic mileage from the wind that

Nanny passes every time she rises from her bed. A crotchety but protective

surrogate parent and faux Christian Scientist, Nanny likes to put

a negative spin on everything and gets her daily lift from pills,

sherry, and movie star chatter. Nanny, however, is an unmistakable

force in Helen’s life, showing up later as a grand caricature in Burnett’s

TV skits.

It seems that Helen’s mother Louise, having divorced her pathetic

husband years before, felt it necessary to go off alone and pursue

her impractical and quickly crushed dream of being a movie star interviewer.

Michele Pawk, who gives the play its most dramatic interest, excellently

plays the disillusioned and emotionally and physically disintegrating

Louise. Act II is set in 1951, and the 20-year-old Helen is now played

by a very fine Donna Lynne Champlin. Working her way through UCLA

by day and ushering at a neighborhood movie theater at night, Helen

also finds time to develop her blossoming talent.

The play affords a diverting moment as Helen shows off her flair for

stand-up comedy. She re-enacts for the family how she entertained

the audience by telling them the movie’s plot from the stage of the

theater when the projector broke down. Champlin ends Helen’s speedily

amusing monologue with a soaring rendition of "I’m Always Chasing

Rainbows." Meanwhile, Jody (Frank Wood), Louise’s tubercular mostly

stupefied ex and Carol’s father makes discomforting return visits

to see his little girl. Other characters who invade the episodic memoirs

include Bill (Patrick Clear), the guileless man that Nanny convinces

Louise to marry before he takes a powder; and Alice (Emily Graham-Handley),

Louise’s daughter from a past affair.

A raid on the apartment by a pair of cops (Christian Kohn and Steve

Bakunas), who suspect some drug dealing, adds some mayhem but little

else. Somewhat miraculously Helen, bankrolled by an anonymous sponsor,

goes off to fame and fortune in New York. Despite the presence of

excellently portrayed characters, and designer Walt Spangler’s realistic

evocation of a nondescript Hollywood Hills apartment, "Hollywood

Arms" is mostly hampered by a loosely strung script. There is

compensation in knowing that Burnett survived these early years to

go on and become one of America’s comic treasures. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Hollywood Arms, Cort Theater, 138 West 48 Street, New

York. $20 to $80. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

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