By: David Barr
At: Pegasus Players at Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson
Phone: 773-878-9761; $17-$25
Through April 1
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
What are the lessons to be gleaned from David Barr's world-premiere drama Black Caesar for Pegasus Players?
Is it better to be brutally honest about the transgressions of iconic African-American civil rights leaders? Or is it better to downplay a hero's human frailties when his or her great achievements have a lasting impact?
Barr wants to have it both ways in Black Caesar, which only dilutes the effectiveness of his modernized adaptation of the 1941 film classic Citizen Kane. It also jerks around the audience's loyalties when scenes of heroic defiance to institutionalized racism are mixed with Black-on-Black corruption, blackmail and adultery.
Black Caesar follows jaded alcoholic reporter T. Darryl Heggans ( Andre Teamer ) as he investigates the rise and fall of late Chicago publisher Ciaphus Julius Caesar ( Alfred H. Wilson ) . Caesar fought against racism by informing generations of African Americans with his newspaper, The Vanguard ( clearly modeled on the real-life Chicago Defender ) . Caesar also had political aspirations that crumble amid a sexual scandal.
Heggans' journey not exposes Caesar's many demons, but those of the promising reporter himself.
A problem with Black Caesar is that it lacks a 'Rosebud' catch-phrase mystery to properly propel the action. Another flaw is the all-encompassing power and wealth Barr gives Caesar, which feels out of place today with real tough financial times The Chicago Defender and the entire newspaper industry have faced with the rise of the Internet.
Closely linking the fictional Vanguard to the real-life history of The Chicago Defender also is sure to get ire up of historians. ( Just look at the anger many African Americans have toward the film Dreamgirls and its fictionalized take on the rise of Motown and The Supremes. )
If Barr's script never fully gels or convinces, it does have some snappy dialogue and ironic jokes ( though it's a bit heavy on the name-dropping ) . Pegasus Players' physical production of Black Caesar is handsomely realized under Alex Levy's strong direction. Jack Magaw's monochromatic set of old newspapers provides the perfect backdrop for Levy's very capable cast ( though some stumbled over their lines at the performance I saw ) .
With all of the flip-flopping between corrupt media mogul and crusading civil rights fighter, Wilson leaves a very mixed impression. He's always forceful when it comes to African-American images in the community, but we never really get a good sense of his motivations when he fails.
The personal anguish of Teamer, as the once-star reporter Heggans, comes shining through, though you wonder if his problems hijack the main focus off of Caesar.
So what is to be taken away from Black Caesar? Maybe that iconic heroes are real people—warts and all. Or that adapting and updating a film classic by mixing fiction with real history is a perilous undertaking.