A march on poverty provides dramatic material for black acting ensemble

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The War Party Play by Leslie Lee. Directed by Douglas Turner Ward. The Negro Ensemble Company has opened its 20th season with ``The War Party,'' by Leslie Lee, whose extensive credits include NEC productions of his ``The First Breeze of Summer'' and ``Colored People's Time.'' Mr. Lee's new drama, at Theatre Four, takes place in Philadelphia in 1978. It centers on the determination of an attractive mulatto college student (the daughter of a black father and a white mother) to leave her comfortable suburban environment and work as a volunteer in an organization called Marching on Poverty.

In addition to her widowed mother's strenuous opposition, Kathy Robbins (Carla Brothers) finds herself facing an assortment of new experiences and problems. She learns black jive talk, is roughly rehearsed in the techniques of protest-marching, and makes at least one fast friend. Kathy also becomes sexually involved with the abrasively dictatorial founder-leader of the movement (Adam Wade) and with his more humane second-in-command (Vondie Curtis-Hall).

The action unfolds in a series of vignettes as the marchers prepare for their demonstration in a hostile neighborhood. Mr. Lee uses the situation to reiterate the harsh dilemmas still facing ghetto blacks and those who would champion their cause. A couple of impudent dudes (Brian Wesley Thomas and Tico Wells) provide passing comic relief and, as street gang members, occasion the violence that turns ``The War Party'' into melodramatic tragedy.

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Kathy's fate is bound up with such larger issues as the slow pace of racial reform in the United States, aberrational phenomena like Nazi fringe groups, and the counterproductive effects of power struggles among black leaders. But in attempting to reach out in as many directions as possible, Mr. Leslie tends to dissipate whatever central message he had in mind.

Douglas Turner Ward's direction responds to the vivid portraiture of the writing. Miss Brothers's Kathy is both vulnerably naive and sexually compliant. Mr. Wade and Mr. Curtis-Hall do what they can with the play's somewhat sketchily treated central antagonists. Besides those previously mentioned, the capable NEC cast includes Roberta Pikser (Mrs. Robbins), Kirk Taylor, Kathryn Hunter, Larry Sharp, and Carmen Mathis. Charles H. McClennahan designed the multipurpose setting with lighting by Shirley Prendergast and costumes by Judy Dearing.

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