The radio promo for The Bow-Wow Club tells us with an audio wink that "old dogs can learn new tricks." Apparently Karamu is trying to fudge Levy Lee Simon's chronicle of a men's club 20th-anniversary reunion into another laugh lulu off the chitling circuit. (Wrong!)
The company's production of this destined-to-be-some-kind-of-classic is an unforgettable theater experience. In fact, I intend to make all my friends see it. I must also shamefully admit, for the first time in decades of reviewing, I wasn't able to fathom the intention of the playwright, determine whether I was watching the work of a mad prophet or a shlockmeister, or pinpoint the focus of director Hassan Rogers.
Playing theater detective, the evening is either a subversive satire, a heartfelt exploration of the troubled black soul or a profoundly philosophical performance-art piece functioning as a meditation on Genet's The Blacks. In any event, it's that rare phenomenon of a work so misguided that it becomes exquisite.
There's evidence to back up each of these hypotheses. For support of the satire theory, consider how the playwright shines a neon light on the paradoxes of black culture, with his characters embodying obviously conflicting elements of rigid Christian conservatism along with unbridled sexuality. This results in the boys venting odes to blow jobs, while treating a homosexual who shows up with the disdain usually reserved for a serial killer.
As for the second interpretation, there are enough failed marriages, failed careers and failed life aspirations in the proceedings to stock several seasons of the Soap Opera Channel. Evoking Genet's masked caricatures, Simon treats all the play's outside characters — including a white Frenchified Bettie Page floozie and a wife ridiculed as a clueless vegan — as shadow figures in a charade.
The best thing to be said about Rogers' direction is that he never tries to squelch the cast's abundant attitudinizing, which, while unflaggingly energetic, recalls the juiciest of '30s films' character acting. All this out-of-control dramatic confusion makes for a kind of divine absurdity that I certainly wouldn't want my friends to forgo.