`Like Them That Dream': a drama of race relations

Like Them That Dream Play by Edgar White. Directed by Samuel P. Barton. Sparrow, the central figure of Edgar White's ``Like Them That Dream,'' makes his first appearance as a cheerful, Bible-quoting street artist, a black South African refugee at large in New York.

Part natural con man, part sidewalk philosopher, Sparrow (Lanyard A. Williams) easily commands the attention of Sharon (Lorey Hayes), a nurse in a Greenwich Village hospital. Invited to her apartment, the beguiling newcomer soon becomes part of her life. With Sharon's recommendation, he is employed as an orderly at the hospital.

It is there that ``Like Those That Dream'' embarks on the complex course of events that leads to its fatal conclusion. Sparrow recognizes in one of the patients, South African Van Muellin (Chet London), a notorious Afrikaaner police official visiting the United States. Sparrow recalls Van Muellin as his own torturer whom he also suspects in the death of a cousin.

Faced with the conflictive new circumstance, the initially buoyant Sparrow grows progressively more bitter and desperate.

One of the playwright's devices is a harrowing nightmare in which the figures of Sharon and head nurse Derris (Lilene Mansell) unavailingly protest Van Muellin's torture of Sparrow. Yet the culmination of ``Like Them That Dream'' seems more contrived than persuasive, given what the spectator has learned about the characters involved.

Meanwhile, Mr. White has provided a series of fluid scenes remarkable for their eloquence, humor, and observation of relationships. He has also offered a commentary - whether through Sparrow's irony or Sharon's pragmatism - of race relations in a white man's world.

The play's values have been effectively realized in the performance staged by Samuel P. Barton. Mr. Williams gives a striking portrayal of the articulate and volatile Sparrow as the man struggles against what is basically a psychological imprisonment. Ms. Hayes makes an appealing Sharon, whose growing love for Sparrow includes marriage if it will secure his immigrant status.

As the Irish-born Miss Derris, Ms. Mansell mingles practicality and professional concern with an almost undeviating sense of ethical responsibility. Mr. London's Van Muellin perceives the pitiable weakness that underlies the Afrikaaner's bullying bluster.

Set designer Daniel Proett has created a photomural building fa,cade which dissolves as the action moves into Sharon's apartment and the hospital interiors.

The Negro Ensemble Company production at Theatre Four (through April 24) was costumed by Karen Perry and lighted by Victor En Yu Tan. Mr. Barton and Phil Lee devised the dramatically integrated sound effects.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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