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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 25, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `A Night in Tunisia’

I‘m here to sing my song on how to stay alive,"

sings the talented and attractive Cheryl Freeman at the start of Regina

Taylor’s "A Night in Tunisia." This music infused and confused

play depends on the talent of its two stars, Freeman and the dazzling

Suzzanne Douglas, to keep it alive.

In the role of Simone Scheherezade Fuques, a waitress at the Tunisia

Bar-B-Q and Grill, Freeman lets us know she is about to start a journey,

not in space or in time but in her mind. We guess this because she

is dressed in a white satin gown and standing under a single spot

within designer Ted Simpson’s artfully spare space, save for the neon-lit

bar sign. This is an effective send off for what promises to be an

imaginary journey into the consciousness of the African-American woman.

Imaginary it may be, but as the play soon proves, imaginative it is


The characters that Taylor would like us to connect with are mostly

retreads of those already made familiar by such innovative creators

as Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, and the gang at Saturday Night Live.

This makes us ask, where is the new slant and the bold vision that

might lift us into another and perhaps unexplored mindset? Despite

Ted Sod’s attentive direction, "Tunisia" is no more than an

entertainment showcase for its formidable stage talent.

Freeman serves as a conduit into the lives of four imaginary African-American

women. In various and colorful garb designed by Toni-Leslie James,

these characters appear, tell "their story," and presumably

allow Simone see aspects of her self, look within her self, and thereby

get to know her self. It is for Suzzanne Douglas to portray these

four diverse but rarely compelling characters in a succession of skits

that, despite being filled with sassy asides and soulful attitudinizing,

don’t come close to fulfilling our expectation for invention or insight.

The show’s few original songs and generous piano underscoring

by composer Timothy Graphenreed don’t begin to rise to the level of

its more famous integrated musical numbers — "I Will Survive,"

"Spanish Harlem," "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,"

and "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." The essentially symbolic Simone, who

lets us know that whenever she opens her mouth "the truth will

set her free," expresses the germ of an idea that propels Taylor’s

play. It’s nice to have that kind of confidence. It’s too bad that

her truth only seems to turn up as the most obvious and blatant cliche.

However muddled the message, it is still a treat to see two actors

taking complete and courageous charge of their multiple assignments.

With commendable virtuosity, Douglas becomes the emotionally scarred

but vulnerable Amanda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV anchor who has

never allowed herself to feel too much, but doesn’t stop herself from

pursuing a hunk with a bad attitude. Amanda is the only character

who deserves our attention and perhaps a play of her own. Equally

bruising is the way Douglas inhabits GinXYZ, the rebellious, genetically-engineered

motor-mouthed teen who reinvents the truth and her world after being

gang raped.

Fast becoming George Street’s resident company of one, Douglas also

mines a smidgen of poignancy as the fast-talking hooker M&M, who,

after her husband is sent to jail and she is left to care for her

child, asks, "Where does a woman store her strength?" And

she lets us know. Freeman, who played the Acid Queen in "The Who’s

Tommy" on Broadway, has her most interesting transformation playing

M&M’s transvestite friend and future partner in their "marvelous"

beauty salon.

The final character we meet is Madear, a 109-year-old black woman

who attempts to reach God by phoning a psychic hotline. This, as she

awaits God’s arrival in a spaceship and his scheduled appearance on

TV. Answering an off-stage knocking, she attempts to exit the stage

only to be transformed into a new and vital woman. "I’m going

to a place where I can hear myself thinking," she says. One wishes

playwright Taylor had thought her way beyond a star vehicle to a true


— Simon Saltzman

A Night in Tunisia, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $26 to $50. Performances to October


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