Pictured Eva Loseth and Anthony Irons in Congo Square Theatre Company's King of Coons.
Playwright: Michael Henry Brown
At: Congo Square at Theatre Building
Phone: (773) 327-5252; $25
Runs through: March 7
By Jonathan Abarbanel
King of Coons is not always a good play, but it's always a powerful one; a provocative treatment of a controversial subject that will offend some and make few happy. It's blessed with an impassioned lead performance by Anthony Irons, a thin-as-a-rail young actor with great physical agility and mimic gifts, who can turn his emotions on a dime.
Irons plays Cotton Pickit, a thinly disguised portrait of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (1902?-1985), better known as Stepin Fetchit, who made 30 Hollywood films, and reigned as the first Black movie star from the late 1920s through the 1930s. His stage name and fame were based on portraying a superstitious, lazy, drawling colored servant to Will Rogers or Shirley Temple or whomever. As fictionalized here—and not far from the truth—Pickit finds himself denied by society and marginalized by the film industry, even before encountering critical backlash from the Negro community over the stereotype he perpetuated. Frustrated and tormented, his self-destructive behavior nearly ruins his career and marriage.
Black audiences may find it difficult to see Fetchit's screen persona recreated so faithfully by rubber-limbed Irons as Picket, and may find it more difficult to see prickly Pickit continue to demean and defend himself well into the more liberal 1980s, as the real Fetchit did. White audiences should be uncomfortable, too, because King of Coons is blatantly racist. No audience today—Black or white—would tolerate the portrayal of Black characters in as narrow and stereotyped a manner as the white characters in this play, every one either paternalistic, bigoted or a thug. One hopes the reverse racism is intended for dramatic effect by author Michael Henry Brown, because it's unacceptable if it's not.
One difficulty is that all characters except for Pickit are merely two dimensional, generally mouthpieces for points Brown wishes to make. There is no other character of complexity and substance for Pickit to play off. Brown lays out the major conflict within minutes and pounds it home over and over with thesis statements such as 'They won't let you be a star,' and 'We all wear masks. Cooning is as American as apple pie.' He chooses not to show how Fetchit was lionized by much of Black America, or to compare his career and behavior to that of other notable Black film artists of the era, among them Paul Robeson, Butterfly McQueen, Tess Gardella and Bill Robinson, all of whom maintained dignity within the confines of stereotyping.
Against the script's limitations, Eva Loseth is sympathetic and alluring as Pickit's loyal wife, Danny Goldring brings vulgar authority to mogul Max Wolfe, and Michael Kass is effective as Wolfe's more personable nephew. Harry Lennix's direction makes no apologies for the play's tough stance and often-unappealing characters, making King of Coons a discomforting but memorable experience.