The Baptism and Night Baseball
Russell Street Theater
Through August 18

For years, playwright Amiri Baraka has been a powerful African American voice in the world of dramatic literature. He is also, at his core, a poet, which means he takes pleasure in writing art that is intentionally elusive and ambiguous. His attack on Christian hypocrisy, The Baptism, falls under both categories.

The Baptism tells the tale of a young boy (Ingrid Carlson), who approaches a Baptist church so he can be baptized and cleansed of his sins. It seems that kiddo has an affinity for jerking off during his daily prayer sessions, which have occurred after every meal for the past year. The math is easy: three meals a day; 365 days in a year... that's 1095 prayer-jerk offs.

This appalling statistic is helpfully pointed out to the audience by a homosexual (that's how his character is listed in the program: "homosexual") who prances about the church in leather boots, tight, red, silky underwear, and a business shirt. There's also the crazy black Baptist minister (Frank Arrington) and his chorus of oversexed, gospel singing... gospel singers. Oh yeah, and there's a crazy old woman, the only character who is actually seen the boy wackin' it to the tune of the Lord she uses her information to scream "sinner" at him over and over, before finally shutting up and not saying another word for the rest of the play.

This host of wackos sounds like a recipe for hilarity the way I've described it, but something about Baraka's writing is just too serious for it to be taken as funny. At the same time, everything is too absurd for anything to be taken seriously. Baraka seems to be hinting at heavy issues--sexuality, corruption in the church, sexuality and corruption in the church, etc.--but anything resonant is lost in an avalanche of pseudo-poetic weirdness.

To give Baraka some credit, I don't think this particular production from Theatre Vertigo helps him out much. There is actually some dramatic action that takes place in the script, and it might have even been interesting if the Vertigo cast had mixed in tones besides an unending stream of sweaty, shouting mania. A scene in which the church members brutally beat the homosexual was not shocking or resonant because the pacing and energy of it didn't seem any more or less intense than anything else that happened. And the play's climactic scene, in which a character slays people with a sword in the name of Jesus, falls completely flat for the same reason. The best thing about this production is that it's mercifully short--barely a half-hour.

Night Baseball, which follows The Baptism, suffers for the opposite reason of its predecessor. Where The Baptism is too unfocused to send any clear message, Night Baseball is so bent on presenting its anti-racist moral that it becomes heavy handed. It presents a group of working class, poker-playing tough guys who want nothing more than to put black people in their place. These men are stereotypical, violent, racist lowlifes, right down to the corrupt cops who can do whatever they want because they ARE the law.

Baseball cruises along for a good while despite its cliches, helped along a great deal by the performance of Don Sky who is touching and hilarious as the crotchety old father of Pete, the leader of the group and the biggest advocate of beating up black dudes. Not coincidentally, when Sky's character goes quiet, and the play gets serious about its issue, things start to get a whole lot less interesting, not to mention melodramatic.