Preacher Power

Irene's latest dinner theater production features powerful words--but it's not a play.

A man stands at a podium, preaching a sermon of racial and economic justice.

We can't see this man--nor the keyboard player providing a soulful undercurrent of organ sounds, nor the gospel singer who punctuates the sermon with more direct musical sales pitches for Jesus (and now, a word from our sponsor ...). We can't see any of these people, because they stand in darkness, illuminated only from behind. But that's all right. All that's really important is the sermon: the gospel according to Martin Luther King Jr.

And it's just as well that we can't see anyone, because the man uttering King's words is Charles Bass, the white proprietor of Irene's Dinner Theater. No doubt some people would be outraged at the thought of a white actor stealing the identity of a real-life role black man. But so what? For one thing, color-blind casting has enriched American theater for more than a decade now. So if we can have Asians starring in Molière and African Americans seeking Shakespearean roles beyond Othello and Caliban, why can't a white actor take on the greatest black role of the 20th century--that of King, the most inclusive civil rights leader this nation has known?

Besides, by appearing only in silhouette, Bass has effectively made himself black.

The best thing about Bass' show, The Preacher From Ebenezer, is the source material. King got his start as a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and the message he began delivering there is one we need to hear again today--and not just on matters of race. Bass' program begins, for example, with King's Bible story about a rich man who went to hell not because he was rich, but because he refused to help the poor. As King puts it, "He was a conscientious objector to the war on poverty." This is a story today's rich men need to hear, for they are conducting a war of their own on the poor themselves.

Later, King stresses the importance of taking a stand against all bigotry, not just whatever bigotry directly affects you.

And, most important as the presidential primaries approach, we hear King refusing to soften his message of justice to accommodate his cautious supporters in Washington or to appease financial contributors whose donations are falling off. Appeasement, as King well knew, would have reduced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to a set of vapid talking points requiring no action.

King's opposition to appeasement should shame most of the Democratic presidential contenders and the pundits who claim that real liberals like Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich can't beat George W. Bush because they're not enough like Bush. The strategy of appeasement lost Al Gore the 2000 election; the electoral coin-tossing resulted in voting so close that Bush was able to stage a coup d'état without serious opposition. Appeasement is destroying the Democratic party as a viable alternative to the arrogant, war-mongering plutocrats who have hijacked the conservative agenda.

So the text of Preacher From Ebenezer is essential to us now, and Bass, as directed by Shelley Miller, helps the words retain their persuasive force by often reproducing King's own cadences. He gets able keyboard support from Michael "Jukebox" Walker, and if the single-named gospel singer Bonita starts out a bit timidly she does become more assured as the show progresses.

But Bass' two spoken vignettes don't really add up to a play. There's no dramatic arch, no crisis and no resolution because there's nothing to resolve. The whole show is over in 25 minutes, and all we get, like Bass in profile on the darkened stage, is Martin Luther King Jr. in silhouette.