Don’t polish the Sterling 

This month, Jump-Start celebrates the art and leadership of Sterling Houston, who guided the performance company through its formative years before his untimely death in 2006. By everybody’s definition, Houston was a quintessentially “San Antonio playwright,” a designation that now seems a double-edged sword. By concentrating so narrowly — indeed, almost exclusively — on his hometown, Houston obviously gave voice to communities — African-American, Latino, and gay — that had been traditionally elided from most historical narratives of South Texas. But Houston also assumed an audience steeped in (and fascinated by) San Antonio lore:  a tall order for even Austinites, and tougher still for audiences further afield.           

So it’s doubtful that Houston’s literary corpus — now partly anthologized in a new collection edited by Sandra Mayo and published by San Antonio’s Wings Press — will ever gain much traction outside of San Antonio, and ultimately this will hobble Houston’s artistic legacy. No one would ever dream, for instance, of labeling August Wilson “a Pittsburgh playwright,” though in a strict sense he was exactly that. But Wilson was far more successful than Houston in telescoping the tribulations of a single city into a far broader examination of race and American history: His plays were often set in Pittsburgh, but they were never about Pittsburgh. (As the Kennedy Center’s recent celebration attests, Wilson’s mammoth Century Cycle has got wheels far beyond the Keystone State.) Likewise, fellow Texan playwright Horton Foote has managed to trip bountifully over state lines and appeal to a wider American demographic, even snagging a Pulitzer en route.             

By contrast, Houston’s commissioned pieces — which are largely historical in focus — are among the weakest in the collection, and demonstrate Houston’s difficulties in reconciling archival content with fictional form. The Living Graves, a sort of South Texas Spoon River Anthology, relies far too heavily on shocks of recognition to produce interest (Look! A De Zavala!). It’s more a museum diorama than a play. Miss Bowden’s Dream, a piece commissioned to celebrate the indefatigable founder of St. Philip’s College, adopts a reverential tone appropriate to its context and protagonist, but won’t hold more than local interest as an independent drama. It’s the essence of situational (ergo, ephemeral) theater.           

Fortunately, Houston is on firmer ground when unfettered from the constraints of commission. Cameoland, his strongest play, mixes music and jaunty prose in a sweeping, time-traveling exploration of the city’s largely African-American district of St. Paul’s Square. Driving Wheel, a short autobiographical one-act, takes a spin through Houston’s tortured coming-out process, while the antithetically named Black Lily and White Lily explores a war of the Lilies in segregated SATX. (This short play is compelling until Houston paints himself into a corner; the dénouement is preposterous. In sum, a checkered Lily.)           

Although Mayo includes some helpful introductory notes to each play, the text itself is riddled with typos and blunders, usually of the homonym variety (“imminent” for “eminent,” “loosing” for “losing,” etc.); my favorite is the mislabeling of one play as Miss Borden’s Dream. (Just think: a piece that tackles racism and pasteurization!) If Mayo is serious about providing a critical edition of Houston’s plays, she needs to eliminate editorial errors, indicate authorial mistakes, and provide a clean text for actors, directors, and scholars. The current volume slights both Houston’s talents and his output.

Thursday’s gala event — at which the main theater was officially renamed in honor of Houston — included a preview of High Yello Rose, an all-female musical romp through one of Texas’ foundational myths: the distracting dalliance of Emily Morgan with Santa Anna during the battle of San Jacinto. Sadly, Steve Bailey’s production (apparently replicating the original direction of Arnold Aprill) doesn’t trust Houston’s text enough, preferring grotesque, Cornyation-like exaggeration to a more nuanced interpretation of the play. (Crotch grabs, for instance, are a dependable leitmotif.) If Yello Rose were intended as a mere jeu d’esprit, that would be excusable, or at least comprehensible; but the second act includes, among other things, a shocking double rape atop a corpse. In the context of this cartoonish production, it’s like watching a gang-bang on Saturday Night Live.  

And that’s the problem with the whole evening: The text is already a travesty — literally — so why play it so consistently, even tediously, as caricature? It makes the rape scene look tasteless and incongruous, when it should be powerful and provocative. The play’s framing device — a romance between the mulatto Emily and the dark-skinned Joe John Joshua — is so cursorily limned and broadly acted that it’s impossible to feel any sort of honest connection between the lovers. (In a clever but telling metatheatrical moment, Houston actually refers to the difficulties of following his own plot. Eeek.) There are a few clever set pieces — I enjoyed a goofy, vaudeville-inspired jailbreak — but the play is basically a sketch stretched out to two acts. The acting is amateurish, but Pamela Dean Kenny and Monessa Esquivel fare best as arch-nemeses Sam (i.e. not Sterling) Houston and Santa Anna. Robert Rehm contributes an attractive set, and Anne-Marie Ratliff the costumes. Nobody claims the perfunctory lighting design.

Thursday’s performance also included a too-brief recording of Sterling Houston performing a fragment of “The Secret Oral Teachings of the Sacred Walking Blues.” It was everything High Yello Rose wasn’t: tragicomic, subtle, and moving, as it fused the bluest of arts with the blackest of humor. It also allowed Houston’s voice — his real voice — to breathe and luxuriate, without the suffocating lacquer of shtick. If Jump-Start is serious about preserving Houston’s legacy, it needs to work harder at plumbing the complexity of his plays, and to commit a greater share of its
resources toward mounting top-notch productions. In the end, that’s the only way to turn Sterling into gold.


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