A trailblazing VCU student brings the provocative work of LeRoi Jones to the stage. 

In the "Toilet"

This spring, money dominates the news of the local theater scene. The Barksdale is in the hole again; Swift Creek Mill Theatre didn't have the cash to put up "Sweeney Todd;" and TheatreVirginia has begun to focus on a future move that will require a large influx of capital. Even the best news on the horizon — the return of Theatre IV to adult theater with "The Cripple of Inishmann" in May — comes after a year of economic uncertainty for central Virginia's largest company.

With all the talk of money, it's easy to lose sight of the art at the heart of it all. The production of two one-act plays written by '60s radical LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka) should bring the focus sharply back to the role of theater in society. "The Baptism" and "The Toilet" will premiere at Fieldens Cabaret Theatre on March 21 as a special offering from the Richmond Triangle Players with Virginia Commonwealth University student Joseph Cameron at the helm. Though written 40 years ago, the two works may be the most provocative and potentially offensive plays produced this year.

Full of violence, profanity and material that some might find sacrilegious, the plays incited vociferous criticism when they were first produced in 1961 and 1962. "The Baptism" depicts a church congregation where sex is rampant — between ministers, parishioners, underage boys and girls, and more. One critic called it "something you won't forget — like an attack of cholera." "The Toilet," a brutal story of a man whose carefree life is threatened by a secret he won't reveal, was characterized by a critic as "several thousand dirty words."

Cameron has had to deal with the reaction these plays incite even before his production opens. He had to recast "The Toilet" twice after offended actors quit. Flyers he has posted have been torn down. Even some of the actors who have stuck with Cameron are taking the unusual step of putting disclaimers in the show's program, assuring audience members that they don't necessarily share the views of the playwright. "It just shows the emotion and outrage that Jones can generate," Cameron says.

A senior enrolled in VCU's nontraditional studies program, Cameron is producing the plays as part of an internship and feels they will offer Richmonders a rare opportunity. "LeRoi Jones should be experienced at least once," he says.

Cameron says that Fieldens was the natural place to put up this production. "I really appreciate the Richmond Triangle Players; they offer a venue that allows you to shake the tree a little bit." Cameron believes his production may open the door for more cooperative programs between VCU and RTP.

While the plays predate the militant black nationalism that would define Jones/Baraka in later years, these are still a couple of angry plays. Cameron, who is white, insists that the plays shouldn't be dismissed simply because they are provocative: "[Jones] has something to say, and he makes many valid points," he says. "He may say some things we don't like, but they still make us think."


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