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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

justice

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

jury,"

we assume that we are to be pulled into a drama in which an aggressive

black attorney defends a disadvantaged black youth accused of

murdering

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

certainty."

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

rabbinical

student on the subway. That Love makes an effective case for the

defendant

says as much for this fine actor’s skill as it does for his role as

an attorney.

Minutes later we are in Paul and Leila’s home in Harlem where

"Spirit

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

Eagles"

(1990) produced at Crossroads.

As the lawyer’s wife, a schoolteacher by profession, Leila (Joy

deMichelle

Moore) is busy with plans for redecorating her home, but is even

busier

keeping tabs on Ben (Ray Aranha), Paul’s senile grandfather. A former

vaudevillian, Ben lives mostly in the past. He’s a character who

amusingly

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

Victory

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

incantations

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

quickly

(thanks to Aranha’s endearing performance) becomes the play’s most

interesting character.

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

doesn’t

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

unprepared.

Mixing into the fray is Shelby (Mone Walton), a social worker and

Leila’s childhood girlfriend. Walton’s more vigorously energized

performance

is nicely contrasted against the comparatively conservative, but

volatile,

forces generated by DeMichelle. That Shelby sides with Paul and adopts

the "payback time" argument, doesn’t keep Leila from

expressing

her opposing views, even to the point of leaving Paul. Illogical and

improbable as are Leila’s emotional responses to her husband’s

professional

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

three-way

debate comes only after we have been led through a series of red

herrings.

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

hazard,

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

home.

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,

extraordinary

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

Spirit North, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston

Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. $22.50 to $32.50. To Sunday, February

15.


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