By Joseph Hurley
ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT WINGS, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Dan Wackerman. Starring Maurice McR’ and Rita Pietropinto. The Peccadillo Theater Company. At the Bank Street Thjeatre. Through Nov. 4.
In 1923, when Eugene O’Neill wrote “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” he specified that productions of the play, set in New York’s Lower East Side from 1905-21, make use of popular music of the day, as well as of the spirituals familiar to the black members of the work’s interracial cast.
Most stagings, and there haven’t been many since its debut at the Provincetown Playhouse on May 15, 1924, use the music the playwright requested more or less as background music, performed in the wings as the action of the text proceeds onstage.
The Peccadillo Theater Company’s refreshingly reconceived new production, on view at the Bank Street Theatre in the Old Westbeth complex, making use of a nine-member aggregation the program refers to as “the Five Points Chorus,” moves the music front and center, with well-trained singers stepping forward to perform such numbers as “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage,” “Annie Laurie,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Mourning Dove” and “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.”
The largely successful treatment at the hands of director Dan Wackerman has the effect of turning this version of the play, a work not seen in New York since 1975, into a vest-pocket musical, and an unusually well-performed one at that.
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“All God’s Chillun Got Wings” is the groundbreaking play in which O’Neill dealt with the difficult and eventually disastrous relationship involving Ella Downey, a white woman, and James Harris, a black man. Originally, the stars were Paul Robeson, then a rising 26-year-old actor, and Mary Blair, who, for the rest of her life, was known as “the actress who kissed the hand of a Negro on the stage.”
For the Christian names of his characters, James and Ella, O’Neill appropriated those of his parents, both of whom were recently deceased when the play was written.
That, coupled with the playt’s portrait of a marriage that began in love and ended in near-madness, has caused the play to be viewed as a sketch for “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” O’Neill’s crowning achievement.
Certainly, the writer’s family, not to mention the tortured emotional and psychological background in which he was raised, was never far from O’Neill’s mind, and it seems logical that these concerns influence “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.”
In its day, the play was the occasion of controversy and bitter dispute. In the play’s first scene, the sequence set in 1905, Ella and Jim, and three of their friends, are seen as children. In the original production, the city government refused a permit allowing the youngsters to appear on stage, and the brief scene was read by James Light, an O’Neill colleague.
The Peccadillo production, played in front of a beautifully rendered diorama made up of evocative photographs of life in New York during the early years of the 20th Century, reduces the number of children from five to two, namely the embattled lovers in embryonic form, but otherwise leaves the text alone.
Director Wackerman has been fortunate in recruiting a strong cast whose members are both appealing and talented, with particular emphasis on Maurice McR’ and Rita Pietropinto, the production’s Jim and Ella, and, perhaps best of all, Monica J. Stith, the attractive, eloquent actress who plays Hattie, the hero’s skeptical sister.
Among the singing ensemble, described somewhat archly in the press materials as “an interracial chorus of gangsters and pimps, prostitutes and con men,” standouts are Jennifer McCabe, Kim Crawford, Ashley Watkins and Mariama Whyte.
The play itself, as is the case with almost all of O’Neill’s early and mid-career works, manifests a certain awkwardness and a good measure of wrenchingly unspeakable dialogue, which the Peccadillo actors deliver about as well as any performers could be expected to.
As conceived by the playwright, Ella Downey is a mass of contradictions, well-intentioned, but somehow in the grip of a prejudice and a racism that seem structured into her genetic make-up, ready to emerge, more and more viciously, as she slips into a madness brought on by the pressures of her marital situation and the social constricts that surround her.
Peccadillo has done an admirable job in selecting and staging one of Eugene O’Neill’s most infrequently produced plays, and a journey to Bank Street should reward serious theatergoers.