• U.S.

Repertory: Song of the Lusitanian Bogey

4 minute read

An artfully professional new repertory group has now joined the U.S. theater: the Negro Ensemble Company. Supple in motion, stoic in grief, satiric in temper, the all-Negro cast (five men, four women) turns Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, an atrabilious Peter Weiss tract on the evils of Portuguese colonialism, into a mimetic dance of pain, fury, death and anticipatory joy. For a troupe in its infancy, opening night at Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Playhouse off Broadway marked a large stride toward the dream of Co-Founder Robert Hooks (Hallelujah, Baby!): “If in ten years we can compete with all the other companies in the country, I’ll be satisfied.”

The bogey that dominates the stage is an 11-ft. form sculpted out of assorted junk, an effigy caricaturing the godhead of white power as it might be conceived by the black African mind. The huge breadbox mouth flaps open to emit the platitudes of white domination, the solace of the white man’s religion, the equity of the white man’s law. The cast play the colonizers of Angola and the colonized interchangeably, singing Brechtian ditties that sardonically mock the oppressors and vivify the laments of the oppressed.

The play consists of frightening, cruel vignettes. A woman six months pregnant is booted in the stomach and loses her baby. An Angolan Negro loses his passbook, hence his job, hence his life. The pitiable wages of native contract laborers are recorded, along with a drum-roll-call of industrial corporations that draw profits from the mines of Rhodesia, Katanga and South Africa.

Writing well below his form in Marat/ Sade, Peter Weiss follows the first rule of the polemicist: never play fair. He has omitted a single, solitary act of mercy or justice on the part of his colonial administrators. Even stage villains are not that consistent. The cast, however, infuses the evening with its own humanity. The unmasked joy with which they finally rip the bogey asunder is obviously not confined to a gesture of liberation in a Portuguese colony.

Philadelphia Lawyer. The economic muscle behind the Negro Ensemble Company is a $434,000 Ford Foundation grant, but the igniting will and brainpower belong to a triumvirate who conceived the project and run the company: Hooks, 30, Negro Playwright Douglas Turner Ward, 38, and Gerald Krone, 34, a white producer with a string of off-Broadway hits. “My thoughts were,” says Hooks, “producers will only hire a Negro for that special role. Yet there’s no reason why the part of a Philadelphia lawyer can’t be played by a Negro if he’s a better actor than a white man.”

The ensemble is more than just a theater. Its home, in a nondescript 3½-story building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is a honeycomb of workshops intended to serve both experienced and fledgling actors, and would-be playwrights and directors. The goal of the ensemble’s activity is to speak to Negro audiences in a Negro idiom about the Negro situation—even at the risk of encouraging a kind of cultural separatism. “We’ve been very loose as far as ideological manifestoes go,” says Ward, “but we are Negro oriented and we don’t apologize for that.” The ensemble has distributed posters to beauty parlors, barbershops and small retailers in Harlem and Newark, offered tickets at a discount price of $1.50 in Negro areas. Ward has ordered 20 seats per night to be held for Negroes who show up on the spur of the moment at the box office. But talent has no color line. The care and skill displayed in the production of Song of the Lusitanian Bogey is the firmest lease that the ensemble has on future audiences—black and white alike.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com