Wednesday, February 8, 2012

'Ruth' confronts historical prejudice with puppets

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2012 at 8:47 AM

NO STRINGS ATTACHED: The central family of Ruth and the Green Book
“Travel is fatal to prejudice,” a quotation from Mark Twain, appeared on the cover of The Negro Motorist Green Book in the 1950s. The guide provided an invaluable service to African-American travelers in the Jim Crow era by identifying safe service stations, restaurants, and boarding houses. The Green Book itself has traveled across the decades to inspire two stage plays in Atlanta’s 2011-2012 theatrical season. Last fall, Theatrical Outfit’s The Green Book used such characters as a go-getting young salesman and a Jewish Holocaust survivor to explore the different facets of racism in the United States following World War II.

The Center for Puppetry Arts’ world premiere production Ruth and the Green Book takes a simpler, more family-friendly approach to fraught moment in American history. Adapted and directed by Jon Ludwig from the children’s book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Floyd Cooper, Ruth and the Green Book presents a hopeful, exuberant musical without glossing over the evils of segregation.

Mixing live actors and puppetry, the Center’s play unfolds from the perspective of Ruth (Tara Lake), a young girl from Chicago with little notion of the institutional prejudice that exists outside the city in 1952. When Ruth’s father and mother (Spencer Stephens and composer S. Renee Clark) take the girl on a trip to see her grandmother in Alabama, she’s dismayed to discover the “Whites Only” signs apparently everywhere. On the road, Ruth and her family have to sleep in the car and go to the bathroom in the woods. The family even takes a 200-mile detour to North Carolina simply out of the promise of safe lodging.

Many of Ruth’s musical numbers express the optimism and song stylings of the 1950s boom years, particularly doo-wop rock ’n' roll. The father first appears with a gorgeous replica of a 1952 Buick convertible painted “sea mist green,” and the family sings about the excitement of travel. The father sings, “This fireball engine’s gonna take me places.” “Just look out for the racists,” interjects a neighbor. The numbers take an angrier turn as the family drives further South, and a song enumerating the hateful Jim Crow laws evokes the angry soul anthems of the 1960s.

Occasionally the conflicts of Ruth and the Green Book, particularly the denial of services, seems an awkward match to the medium of puppetry, given how the story involves realistic characters in oft-depressing situations, with many of the adults’ strongest emotions held in check. In 2006, the doll-like puppets of Bobby Box’s Anne Frank: Within and Without conveyed both the child protagonist’s youth and the fact that she and her family were pawns of history during the Holocaust. Ruth and the Green Book attempts a more challenging balancing act between harsh truths and a positive message.

At best, the distinction between the puppets and the performers conveys a sense of history. The puppeteers, always visible on stage and wearing 1950s-appropriate costumes, at times address the audience directly in the “present.” They provide context for the 1952 dilemma of how to oppose an unjust law and even perform a rap song about the importance of remembering the past.

Fortunately the original Green Book embodies a proactive attitude in the face of prejudice. A song about its services conveys the idea of businesses and individuals linked across the continent to assist African-Americans. In an era of social networks and crowd-sourcing, the solidarity behind the travel guide really resonates. Overall, Ludwig crafts a show energetic and spirited enough to ensure that the audience will connect with Ruth and her family, as well as leave with a sense that society is improvable. Viewers who rallied people to see the film Red Tails, about a slightly earlier chapter in African-American history, should also throw their support behind the Center’s socially progressive puppet show.

Ruth and the Green Book. Feb. 7-26, Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring Street. www.puppet.org

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