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Review: `Spirit North’
This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on February 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
In his new play "Spirit North," Leslie Lee
has given some, but not enough, attention to the issue of moral
versus legal justice. Now receiving its world premiere at Crossroads
Theater, "Spirit North," instead of being the compelling and
insightful drama we hope for, rambles and digresses.
From the play’s opening line, "Ladies and gentlemen of the
we assume that we are to be pulled into a drama in which an aggressive
black attorney defends a disadvantaged black youth accused of
a white youth. But we are sent instead into a domestic situation where
a lawyer must defend his legal tactics to his wife.
Addressing the audience directing, Paul (Victor Love) makes certain
things quite clear. He instructs us on the meaning of such legal terms
as "beyond a reasonable doubt" and "to a moral
He also reminds us that it is his duty to defend his "illiterate,
not very nice" (and most likely guilty), client Malik Robinson
(unseen), of the charge. That charge is slashing the throat of a
student on the subway. That Love makes an effective case for the
says as much for this fine actor’s skill as it does for his role as
Minutes later we are in Paul and Leila’s home in Harlem where
North" becomes a domestic and not a public drama. Unfortunately,
it is not as extraordinary a drama as we have come to expect from
Lee, who also has had "First Breeze of Summer (1978), "Hannah
Davis" (1987), "The Rabbit Foot" (1989), and "Black
(1990) produced at Crossroads.
As the lawyer’s wife, a schoolteacher by profession, Leila (Joy
Moore) is busy with plans for redecorating her home, but is even
keeping tabs on Ben (Ray Aranha), Paul’s senile grandfather. A former
vaudevillian, Ben lives mostly in the past. He’s a character who
continues to rehearse routines with Clarence, his deceased brother
and partner. "We got to take our spirits north," Ben announces
optimistically, thinking about the team’s next engagement at the
Theater in Chicago.
It is, in fact, Ben’s memories and the emptiness he feels without
his deceased wife, that bring forth such lyrical and delightful
as, "Lord, all I want to do is get my foot in heaven and ooze
my way in." Unwittingly philosophical and uncommonly clear about
moral and ethical issues, even at his most delusional, Ben very
(thanks to Aranha’s endearing performance) becomes the play’s most
When Paul asks Leila to head up a demonstration in support of Alika
at the courthouse, a schism is revealed. While Paul is pleased with
Leila’s sudden and delayed announcement that she is pregnant, he
understand her unwillingness to support a black youth on trial. It
is only after Leila, whose life at school is fraught with student
murders, parental abuse, and such, admits that Alika had assaulted
her back when he was her student, that Paul is confronted with the
true complexity of this domestic trial for which he now finds himself
Mixing into the fray is Shelby (Mone Walton), a social worker and
Leila’s childhood girlfriend. Walton’s more vigorously energized
is nicely contrasted against the comparatively conservative, but
forces generated by DeMichelle. That Shelby sides with Paul and adopts
the "payback time" argument, doesn’t keep Leila from
her opposing views, even to the point of leaving Paul. Illogical and
improbable as are Leila’s emotional responses to her husband’s
obligations as a defense attorney, Leila becomes the spokesperson
for those soul-searching dilemmas we face involving the races.
But this too-patently manipulated and deliberately overheated
debate comes only after we have been led through a series of red
Director Harold Scott leads the actors securely through the meandering
incidental posturing and through the more modestly incendiary prose.
There is some talk, but little done, about the aging Ben being a
and about Paul and Leila’s attempt to convince the angry Ben that
he might be happier in a nursing home. There is some mention also
of Paul’s brother doing time in Attica. But it is the graceful Ben’s
gentle time-step, in which he repeats, "ya glide, then you step,
ya glide, then you step," that reminds us that it is he, after
45 years, who remains the principal resident and philosopher of this
An original and pretty song, "Beautiful Star," composed by
"Odetta" Gordon is heard before and after each act. Designer
John Ezell’s setting revolves a lot, but like the play, it doesn’t
take us any place we haven’t been before. I am reminded of some of
the places that Lee has brought us with such directness and vividness
in previous works. We certainly were as emotionally grounded by Lee’s
memorable "The Rabbit Foot," in which a small, impoverished
minstrel group in 1920 brings entertainment to the backwoods folk
who remained in the South during the "Great Migration," as
we were sent aloft by "Black Eagles." In the latter,
play, Lee told the story of the black Americans who were inside the
P-40 Warhawks, and subsequently the P-51 Mustangs. Let us hope that
Lee, celebrating his 20-year association with Crossroads in this its
20th anniversary season, will soar again.
— Simon Saltzman
New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. $22.50 to $32.50. To Sunday, February
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