My Occasion of Sin
nytheatre.com review by Pamela Butler
March 20, 2012
My Occasion of Sin takes place in Omaha during the race riots of the late 1960s, and places us as witness to events in the lives of the characters portrayed here.
Luigi Wells was a real person—a drummer, jazz musician—and is the inspiration for the story. The playwright, Monica Bauer, studied drums under his guidance. Taking license to tell the story, Bauer has Luigi hanging out at the Dreamland Ballroom, a club he inherited from his family. On the other side of town, where the Poles, Czechs and Slovaks live, near the stockyards and slaughterhouses, there’s another music scene brought from the old country—an accordion polka band. George Hollewinski is part of the band and he and his wife Helen, played by Scott Roberson and Janice Hall respectively, own and operate a little music shop where George also gives accordion lessons.
Mary Margaret Irzandowsky (Rosebud Baker), George’s best student, is suddenly smitten by rock and roll and practically demands she be allowed to learn to play the drums. Attention is paid and Luigi Wells, played by Royce Johnson, is hired by Helen to come and teach her.
As the racial tensions in Omaha grow heated, Luigi’s presence on the white side of town becomes troublesome and begins to divide allegiances. Fear and panic set in, rational thought is abandoned and impulsive reaction and violence are the result.
Fourteen-year-old Vivian Strong, also an real person and one time riot victim, here played by Danielle Thompson, tells us about her daily life and her reactions to what’s happening around her. Black Power is becoming a threat, and she becomes a victim of it’s violence.
The story pushes many buttons. Pressures from different corners force reactions of ignorance and fear and their expression here is crude and blunt. The brutishness and absence of sanity or reason is enraging and defeating. Kind of like listening to the Republican candidates’ debate.
Has anything changed? According to notes included in my press kit, Omaha today is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Not by law, but by the general evolution of things—different ethnic groups stay to themselves and self-segregate.
It’s hard business to convey on the stage. Depths of racial fear, hatred, suspicion and rage, are big emotions, not so easily handled by even the most seasoned of performers. For all its good intentions, and a story that wants illumination, the production is rough hewn and the actors, discounting pre-opening night jitters, miscues and general off-ness, are given to uneven performances.
Director Frances Hill, could fix a lot of this with some muscular guidance and more dramatic staging. The production values are all quite good. Lighting, sound, costumes, set and photo projections are all well executed. What is missing is any harmony of these elements. The results are uninspired. There is projected imagery, mostly suggestive of the jazz music that runs throughout, but it is unnecessary and only distracts.
Playwright Monica Bauer has told an important and powerful story here in a work that is more a narrative than a play. We see the characters in their settings, but we do not see their development or their personal change as individuals. We see things happen to them, we see them react, but we do not get much glimpse into their hearts, their feelings, their real pain and anguish. The old question came to mind: Why a play? Why not a documentary, a movie, or a book?
Is this production worth seeing? Absolutely. If you are interested in American history, race relations, jazz, rock and roll or Omaha, Nebraska, you will be well rewarded. The ensemble is earnest and energetic, the music, of Dave Brubeck, James Brown and Luigi Wells, is always a pleasure.