Hassan Rogers is touted on the brochures as a Karamu favorite. It's no wonder--this apple-cheeked actor, director, and raconteur is built along the cuddly lines of Barney the dinosaur. He's a flesh-and-blood roll of Charmin begging to be squeezed. He embodies the "cockeyed optimist" that Nellie Forbush liked to sing and dance about in South Pacific.
To dramatize his undying Pollyannaism, he has written Mrs. Rogers' Back Porch, a valentine to his mother and a monument to his character-building experiences growing up in the Garden Valley projects--his thesis being that what was an undesirable zip code for some was an oasis for kids to grow up in.
Hassan's ninety minutes of campfire storytelling bring to mind that old carnival game where a cheerful masochist would sit on a platform and get dunked every time a ball hit the lever. With every dousing, he seems to emerge with a broader grin. Beaten and abused by a racist father, he is given tougher skin. Mocked whenever he has to carry his mother's big purple box of Kotex from the store, he develops an indomitable sense of humor. Deserted by his father, his family is sent to the ghetto, where he meets his lifelong buddy. His uplifting parables basically add up to the old theory that, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Consigned to the ghetto, Hassan comes up with a black urban teenage version of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown: experiencing the tentative first spark of love at a high school dance, spiking Kool-Aid with a stolen bottle of booze, learning how to make funny faces during a whipping, and listening to the neighborhood derelict, Cool Papa, cheerfully cracking obscene limericks.
Eventually Hassan discovers the joys of the neighborhood church and perceives all these roads as leading to salvation. Hassan is one of those reassuring bundles of love and warmth who always sees the doughnut rather than the hole. His five-member cast all seem untrained, yet wild, invigorating, holy fools.
As the embodiment of young love, Andrea A. Dixon is as fresh and beautiful as a Junior League earth goddess just off Olympus, and the ever-attitudinizing Alicia Kirkland is all chattering hormones and the youthful vitality of emerging womanhood. Though produced on what seems to be a $1.95 budget and as unpolished as a just-unearthed gemstone, this show is vividly alive and sincere.
At the party after the performance, a Karamu executive approached me, as I was in the process of ardently nibbling on a chicken wing, to inquire how I liked it. At first, I wasn't sure if she meant the wing or Hassan Rogers's ode to the power of positive thinking. Invariably, after a moment's contemplation, the conclusion was reached that both were succulent, juicy, and full of the spice that makes life more colorful and fun.
Mrs. Rogers' Back Porch, through May 9 at Karamu House, 2355 East 98th Street, 216-795-7070.