The unfortunate shortage of major black characters in plays and movies has been caused partly by a fear that black subject matter won't appeal to ``general'' audiences. The foolishness of this notion stands out clearly in ``Louie and Ophelia,'' a new play by Gus Edwards, now on stage in a strong production by the Negro Ensemble Company.
The characters are black, and some of their problems relate specifically to color, racial identity, and the history of discrimination that minority groups have suffered. Yet most of the drama focuses on intimate issues of family, work, and romance, exploring these with a humor and compassion that couldn't be more universal.
At a time when so many Broadway and Hollywood entertainments deal with teen-age affairs, moreover, it's refreshing to find a play that depicts, not starry-eyed young dreamers, but seasoned grownups who face real-life obstacles as they establish a relationship.
The two characters are a slightly odd couple: Louie, a crusty gent with a seventh-grade education and a menial job in a restaurant; and Ophelia, an ambitious woman with two children, interesting work in an office, and just a few credits to go toward a college degree.
Such different backgrounds might easily drive them apart as they spend their first evening together at the beginning of the play. But they aren't young anymore; both have faced a good deal of loneliness; and each recognizes the other as a decent person with a healthy set of basic values. Louie moves into Ophelia's apartment for a sort of trial marriage, and they begin the task of merging two personalities -- equally set in their ways -- into a partnership that's sturdy enough not only to sustain itself, but to nurture the children of the household.
In exploring this situation, playwright Edwards consistently zeroes in on elements that might face a couple of any color. Yet he doesn't avoid the special hurdles that confront many black people, and examines them in ways that aren't always flattering to his characters. Louie has a lack of ambition that's rooted in his underprivileged past, for example, and Ophelia has an exaggerated dread of anything that appears remotely servile, to the point where she won't let her children help out with housework. Edwards also wipes out gender stereotypes -- making Louie a warmer parent-figure in some ways (especially regarding an unofficially adopted daughter of his own) than Ophelia.
Douglas Turner Ward, artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company, has directed ``Louie and Ophelia'' with a sure touch, never forcing either its humor or its pathos, and spicing up the action with tasteful bits of music, tape-recorded voices, and a couple of scenes on film. Ward also gives a warm and winning performance as Louie, with Elain Graham matching him as a lively and likable Ophelia. The play (at Theatre Four) is the last production of the NEC's 20th-anniversary season.