Staging the black struggle with vigor and eloquence

Ray Aranha turns back the clock to the period between the early 1940s and 1960 to explore ''the legacy of darkness'' that black Americans challenged as never before in the civil rights movement of the '60s.

In ''Sons and Fathers of Sons,'' at Theater Four, Mr. Aranha employs a variety of approaches - from melodrama and comic dialogues to dialectic and fantasy - to create a kaleidoscope stage piece. Its emotional and intellectual thrust is the sum of its interrelated, fragmentary parts. The play is dense, complex, and at times puzzling. But the main lines of the argument emerge as the characters struggle to identify and define themselves.

Very much a play for actors, the play depends heavily on the resourceful cast assembled by the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) and directed by Walter Dallas. The action takes place in what the author designates as three basic time frames: around 1943 in a rural southern town in Mississippi; around 1953 in the same town; and around 1960 in an all-black university in Tallahassee, Fla. The menace of white racism is represented by two offstage killings.

The play's fantastic element takes form in the symbolic figures of three spectral Sisters (Olivia Virgil Harper, Sarallen, and Ethel Ayler). These ghostly creatures are the guardians of race memory and also of superstition. They provide a portentous pantomime prologue, sing snatches of gospel hymns, and by turns mock and comfort the struggling black mortals of Mr. Aranha's multiple tales. The Sisters also perform the more mundane task of silently moving props and furniture as they glide about the stage.

The degree to which the author's framing of time and circumstance depends on the acting ensemble suggests also the complexity of the piece. Eugene Lee doubles as a defiant Mississippi farmer who meets a violent end (1943) and as a troubled university student (1960). Phylicia Ayers-Allen plays the farmer's pregnant wife and later the unhappily promiscuous coed with whom the student has a brief intimacy. Robert Gossett plays the farmer's envious brother and the collegian's football-hero roommate.

Graham Brown acts the maverick university professor who tries to shake up his promising student by pointing out the oppressive nature of the black American's dilemma. Mr. Brown also fills the brief role of the ex-GI who inadvertently kills a white Mississippi landlord (1953). The soldier is rescued and subsequently betrayed by the widow's son (Howard Baines). (In Mr. Aranha's framework, time's whirligig is like a carrousel that collects and discharges its riders as needed.)

''Sons and Fathers of Sons'' comes most dramatically to grips with its central theme and conflict in the scenes in which the visionary professor struggles to awaken his skeptical student to the historic significance of such an event as the Montgomery bus boycott. In a powerful scene, the teacher vehemently urges the uncertain younger man to involve himself in challenging the legacy of impotence inherent in the mere acceptance of survival by accommodation. From the heat of their confrontation emerges a father-son relationship.

''Sons and Fathers of Sons'' demands much of the spectator. Some of its allusions may prove elusive for a white playgoer. But the vigor and at times the eloquence of Mr. Aranha's writing, plus the admirably committed playing by the NEC cast, offer their own substantial rewards. The almost bare setting of ramps and planes was designed by Wynn Thomas, with lighting by William H. Grant III and costumes by Vicki Jones.

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