LA Review: 'Camp Logan'

The Robey Theatre Company and the Latino Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Reviewed by David C. Nichols

May 08, 2012


Photo by Tim Alexander
A noteworthy degree of cultural authenticity and historical accuracy attends Celeste Bedford Walker’s “Camp Logan,” a seriocomic account of African-American soldiers bivouacked in Houston circa 1917. From that perspective, this merger of character study and social treatise should speak to modern-day audiences, not least because of recent racially charged occurrences in Florida and elsewhere.

Based on actual events, the narrative follows one parcel of black soldiers who first appear marching in formation before the cagelike construct of upended Army cots that dominates designers Rodney Rincon and Phil Buono’s serviceable set. As they turn the cots into a barracks, the banter and expository details reveal the archetypes on parade. Gweely Brown (Sammie Wayne) is the veteran wiseacre of the 24th Infantry, adept at locating procedural loopholes, stashing forbidden liquor, and making fast with the ladies. Joe Moses (Bill Lee Brown), Gweely’s frequent antagonist, is a righteously indignant hothead, hyper-aware of the overt racism the company constantly faces while awaiting its chance to fight in France. Boogaloosa (Dorian C. Baucum), who hails from New Orleans, is a laconic Creole with a wryly rhapsodic attitude that conceals a long-buried trauma. Robert Franciscus (Dwain A. Perry) has straight-arrow rectitude, and this MP, in love with a minister’s daughter, disapproves of his buddies’ rule-skirting shenanigans. Hardin (Kaylon Hunt), the youngest of the crew, is an educated Minnesotan on the inside track to officer’s training, his grave admission that he volunteered eliciting incredulity among the others.

Two seemingly aligned, tacitly contrasting superiors oversee this crew. Ever-barking Captain Zuelke (Jacob Sidney), the white commanding officer, repeatedly betrays his latent bigotry when waxing most effusive about the abilities of black troops. Army careerist Sergeant McKinney (Lee Stansberry) operates on a no-nonsense principle that sets up the script’s reversals, as mounting injustices perpetrated by civilians, city police, and military personnel create a powder keg ready to explode into tragedy.

Director Alex Morris marshals his invested cast and resourceful design squad with determined assurance. Eric Butler’s wide-ranging sound design, Naila A. Sanders’ typically apt costumes, and Wayne’s nuanced lighting keep the senses engaged without fuss, and Kathie Foley-Meyer’s black-and-white vintage images and filmstrips might well be expanded upon.

The actors are variable in technique yet uniformly disciplined in their embrace of the play’s means and message. Stansberry is a particular standout, registering the far-seeing decency beneath McKinney’s hard-line attitude with considerable subtlety. Wayne similarly finds unexpected layers in Gweely’s capers, his elegiac Act 2 opening monologue worth the show. Baucum’s edgy bonhomie as Boogaloosa, Brown’s pugnacious consternation as Moses, and Perry’s perturbed stolidity as Franciscus suit their respective roles. Hunt battles halting delivery and erratic articulation, but that’s not inappropriate for naif Hardin, and if Sidney risks caricature as Zuelke, his one-note bombast gives fiber to the mutinous climax.

Walker has a keen grasp of the behavioral niceties and conversational cadences of another era, and she doesn’t stint on evocative details and atmospheric elements, whether an impromptu group spiritual or the minstrel show Gweely and Boogaloosa perform on command for the troops. However, while her bountiful contributions bring unusual veracity to her tale, they also take longer to get us into the storytelling than necessary. Much of Act 1 veers to anecdotes and sidebars that though meant to give the fullest context aren’t exactly propulsive. Nor does the overgrowth of offstage events described rather than shown bring as much urgency to the proceedings as might be desired—some of this material needs to go. Yet it’s impossible not to respect and admire “Camp Logan,” which recalls a too-little-addressed period in American history that sorely needs attention.

Presented by the Robey Theatre Company, in association with Sparkling City Entertainment, JuVee Productions, and the Latino Theatre Company, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. April 28–May 27. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (866) 811-4111 or www.thelatc.org.
 

 
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