Fuller Play Probes Frustrations of Post-Civil-War Blacks

BURNER'S FROLIC Play by Charles Fuller. Directed by Douglas Turner Ward. `BURNER's FROLIC,'' which finished a brief run last weekend at Theatre Four here, continued Charles Fuller's harsh and sometimes tragic saga of emancipated slaves struggling to enjoy the full rights of their emancipation. The drama was the fourth play in a cycle entitled, ``We (A History in Five Plays).'' When completed, it will cover the latter half of the 19th century.

``Sally,'' the opener, dealt with a woman whose loyalty to her former masters persisted after gaining her freedom. ``Prince,'' the second play, concerned the postwar fate of a sergeant in the Union Army's first all-black regiment. (Hollywood recently turned its attention to the subject in the generally acclaimed ``Glory.'') ``Jonquil,'' the third installment in the Fuller series, dramatized the tragic consequences that ensued when a group of ex-slaves sought to exercise their voting rights. Although each segment of ``We'' is self-contained, occasional cross references illumine their overall relationship.

While ``Burner's Frolic'' didn't share the devastating outcome of ``Jonquil,'' it involves one act of violence as it underscored the frustrations and disappointments experienced by the newly created citizenry. The scene is Virginia in 1875. The title refers to the combined political rally and picnic at which Burner (Adam Wade), a black businessman, undertakes to launch his campaign for a seat on a local city council. Even as Burner presses his case and exhorts his possible supporters, a white Republican named Kimble (William Mooney) arrives on the scene offering the lure of paid-for votes and future services. Kimble has two other weapons: the mortgages and leases he holds and the ominous harassment by a group of whites gathered not far from the site of Burner's frolic.

As usual, Mr. Fuller used the situation to probe some of the personal, social, and domestic circumstances that condition and motivate his characters. Burner's wife, Tiche (Sandra Nutt), turns to formidable fortune teller Aunt Becky (Peggy Alston) for a prescription that will enable her to bear a child. Becky's alcoholic formula merely complicates relationships between Tiche and the much older Burner. On the political side, the would-be black candidate gradually loses the support of his Afro-American adherents. A brief epilogue notes that the soon-to-be-implemented poll tax effectively blocked black voting rights for nearly 85 years.

Mr. Fuller employs a cinema-like technique of quick dissolves and scenes within scenes to tell his story and to shed light on neglected or forotten chapters of the African-American past. The liveliness of the writing prompted an energetic Negro Ensemble Company performance staged by Douglas Turner Ward. Mr. Wade's stubbornly determined Burner and Mr. Mooney's threateningly disingenuous Kimble set the tone for the basic confrontation. In addition to those already mentioned, the cast included Ed Wheeler, Iris Little, Graham Brown, and O.L. Duke.

``We'' continued its course within a spare, neutral setting, with costumes by Judy Dearing and lighting by Sylvester A. Weaver Jr. The cycle will be concluded next season.

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