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‘Rose in America’ a deconstruction of modern civil rights movement

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From left, AeJay Mitchell, John Patrick Moore, Dorian Lockett and Nkechi Emeruwa appear in the world premiere of “Rose in America.” (Courtesy David Allen)

At the start of local playwright Michelle Carter’s “Rose in America” — now in an AlterTheater world premiere — three graduate students, meeting to create a performance project, throw around so many esoteric and scholarly phrases that you might think this is a spoof of experimental theater tropes, or perhaps of academia in general.

But Carter has bigger issues to explore.

The students are African-American: a gay man (played with comical flamboyance by AeJay Mitchell), a woman from a privileged background (the graceful Nkechi Emeruwa) and a much older man, a Black Muslim (an especially convincing Dorian Lockett).

The second scene seems to go in an entirely different direction: an elderly white man, Wally (the excellent Charles Dean), sits around watching TV while his younger lover, Jack, a white teacher at a black school (John Patrick Moore), bustles about. We never do find out much about the nature of their somewhat strained, longstanding relationship, or why Wally is always in pajamas (he doesn’t seem that old, although he’s presumably depressed), and that’s a weak spot in the play.

But then again, Carter is not focusing on gay relationships, although they’re an important element.

A former civil rights advocate, Wally was inspired by a white woman who’d given her life to the movement (the true-life activist Viola Liuzzo) and wrote a play about her that was produced in 1965.

When the three students happen upon the script — which they disparage; it’s of the “white savior genre” — they decide to deconstruct it as their performance project, assuming the playwright is dead.

When they discover he’s not — and that he’s gung-ho for them to revive it, never guessing that they’re repurposing it according to their own, post-modern sensibility and political views — the tense meeting among all concerned reveals deep rifts: between whites and blacks, older and younger generations, socio-economic classes and more.

“Rose” cleverly utilizes performance-within-a-play theatrical devices, for the most part skirting didactic speeches while digging deep into conflicting world views. This is a provocative exploration of the aftermath of the civil rights movement in all its ambiguities (although the fact that it’s set just after Obama’s first election is jarring).

Unfortunately, director Regina Victoria Fields hasn’t figured out how to finesse the staging in the small playing area; thus there’s an overly busy and at times amateurish feel to the production. But she keeps the interactions among characters consistently truthful and engaging.

REVIEW

Rose in America
Presented by AlterTheater
Where: ACT’s Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 16-18, 5 p.m. June 19
Tickets: $25 to $40
Contact: (415) 454-2787, www.altertheater.org
Note: The show continues June 22-July 3 at 729 Fourth St., San Rafael.

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