From left, Desiree Rogers, Juanita Harris and Zoe Hodge appear in “The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae.” (Courtesy Lance Huntley)

Contemporary satire puts black female stereotypes on trial

Comedy brings to light back stories of Mammy, Jezebel characters

Sherri Young, executive director of San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company, is glad that the time has come for the troupe to present “The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae.”

“I saw it years ago in the Bay Area and have been bugging artistic director Peter Callender to do the show; he said no when he read it,” says Young, adding that she fervently disagreed with his notion that it was about black people being slaves.

Noting that there’s a lot of focus on playwrights like August Wilson and Dominique Morisseau, Young jokingly says she beat Callender down, offering to direct “The Trial” if he would schedule it. He did. She quickly reports that, after attending a run-through of the current production, which opens Saturday at Taube Atrium Theater, he apologized to the cast, admitting he was wrong.

Written by Karani Marcia Leslie Johnson, the satirical show — which hasn’t been mounted locally since Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s 1999 production — is about a black career woman who finds herself not progressing in life due to negative stereotypes, from the fat, laughing Mammy character to the over-sexed Jezebel type.

“We see the stereotypes come to life; the audience is the jury, cheering both for the defense and prosecution,” says Young, adding that both sides offer arguments that make “total sense.”

The fourth wall is broken a lot in the show, whose characters include the aforementioned Victoria, who instigates the lawsuit; the slick, highly-educated, upwardly mobile prosecuting attorney; and the overworked, civil-rights focused public defender, who shops at Ross and wears the same outfit to court.

And, of course, there are the titular characters: the subservient, genial, asexual Mammy Louise and the seductive spitfire Safreeta Mae, as well as a few supporting roles.

A prominent part of “The Trial” is the visual design, which includes clips from TV and movies such as “Carmen Jones” and “Imitation of Life,” the 1959 melodrama starring Lana Turner as a successful businesswoman and Juanita Moore as her loyal maid. Young says she’s intimately familiar with the tearjerker, among her mother’s favorite movies.

She also can relate to Victoria’s character.

“Being a black woman myself, I’ve struggled with the same kinds of issues,” she says, mentioning that she’s often asked about her association with a company that produces old plays by white men. Not wanting to pigeonhole herself, she points to the importance of “The Trial’s” main message, about how learning history promotes understanding, and how it’s still a problem that those who suffered (and fought and marched) for opportunities for people today are belittled.

Somewhat surprised that some college students she works with aren’t familiar with “Gone With the Wind” or “Gimme a Break,” she says that the line in “The Trial” that particularly resonates for her is: “You can’t get to where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”

She adds, “We don’t want to forget the people whose shoulders we’re standing on.”

IF YOU GO

The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae

Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company

Where: Taube Atrium, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes March 1

Tickets: $40

Contact: african-americanshakes.org

Theater

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