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Wednesday, November 13, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dee's One-Woman Show Has World Premiere

Seattle Times Theater Critic

-------------- THEATER REVIEW --------------

"My One Good Nerve" by Ruby Dee. Directed by Peggy Shannon. Produced by A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union. Runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Dec. 15. 292-7676.

As an actress, Ruby Dee is a radiance, a dynamo, a petite septuagenarian who can exude earthy sexiness one minute and be a shy schoolgirl or stoned street thug the next, a whiz with voices and moods, postures and looks, who has beguiled audiences for decades.

As a private citizen, Ruby Dee is also remarkable. She's maintained a long marriage to Ossie Davis while forging a film and theatrical career. She's crashed racial barriers and joined other prominent African-American activists and intellectuals in a host of progressive social causes.

And now we have a new Ruby Dee to contemplate - the creator of a world premiere one-woman show at A Contemporary Theatre: "My One Good Nerve." More than a poetry reading but not yet a play, the piece is often vibrantly performed. However, it grants us too little insight into the life or art of an extraordinary woman.

Certainly, just watching Dee command the Gregory Falls Theatre for 90 minutes - even when nervous, as she seemed to be last night - yields rewards. Sharing the magnetic company of the co-star of "Raisin in the Sun" and other memorable dramas, and seeing the world from her sassy, off-kilter, deeply concerned angle, is a rare communion.

Yet how much better "My Good Nerve" would be had Dee and her director, Peggy Shannon, crafted a more rigorous and cohesive pastiche from this variable grab-bag of poems, character studies, dialogues, tributes and deep thoughts.

Dressed by Sarah Nash Gates in a black gown and patterned stole, and later a maroon velvet pantsuit, the elegant Dee introduces herself as a "wordmonger, a slang slinger, a big tome hard-cover-lover" - someone enraptured by the sounds, textures, rhythms, meanings of words.

Almost all of Dee's recitation springs from her own writing, which playfully crisscrosses rap-song, blank verse, nursery rhyme and fiery sermonizing. Some of this material is brand new, including a powerful, angry riff in memory of the slain rapper, Tupac Shakur. Three mock-Mother Goose rhymes and a tribute to Marvin Gaye, among other older pieces, come from the 1987 book version of "My One Good Nerve."

Dee also enacts a tense phone chat between an intolerant mama and her daughter engaged to an ex-con, slyly spoofs America's need for an ideological scapegoat in "I Miss the Russians" and conjures a fanciful, salty United Nations overpopulation forum in a chorus of British, French, African and American accents.

While the writing veers from the stirring and trenchant to the strident or semi-coherent, the central problem is organization. The show paddles backward: The fragmentary first half gathers loosely around the theme of love - maternal, sexual, puppy love, love for humankind - but lacks a throughline to weave the disparate segments together.

In Part 2 we finally hear a few specifics about Dee, including a pungent evocation of her childhood visits to the South where the milk was "thick," the greens bitter, and her grandpa smelled "of tobacco and horses and sweat."

That tantalizing memory aside, Dee reflects mostly on others. What we really crave, though, is more of her own story. Or her story entwined with others'.

Shannon has staged "My One Good Nerve" on a luxurious, polished wood set by William Forrester garnished with a real lily pond and long, sweeping white draperies (lit in jewel tones by Diane Ferry Williams). It's all very grand and gracious, but it comes awfully close to gilding the Ruby.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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