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Here comes the neighborhood 

Once, the thought of a company devoted to Jewish theater in this region was as remote a concept as a local company devoted to the theater of Africa.

Now we have both.

In one of those moments of serendipitous scheduling that underline an ongoing sea change in local live art, credible inaugural productions from Al Singer's 2nd Avenue South Theater Company and Durham's Rotimi Foundation both bowed in the area last weekend.

2nd Avenue's romantic comedy Crossing Delancey (whose 1988 film version starred Amy Irving and Peter Riegert) opened Friday at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theater, a community theater space in a mall on Lead Mine Road. The night before, the Rotimi Foundation brought Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi's absurdist political comedy Holding Talks to the Durham Arts Council's PSI Theater.

As if the point needed further underscoring, the N.C. premiere of David Ives' Polish Joke fell the same weekend, at Chapel Hill's Deep Dish Theater.

Any one of these productions could be used to demonstrate the increasingly felicitous presence of differing cultures in live arts in the region. The convergence of all three, at the start of a new year in theater, gives pointed punctuation to what has come before--and raises pointed questions about what is yet to come.

Clearly, Ola Rotimi's Holding Talks couldn't have reached its full audience in four performances over one weekend. This refreshing one-act metaphor exposes the lies of diplomacy by transposing them into the realm of the everyday.

Shortly after an imperious, wealthy Nigerian (John Murphy) enters the barbershop of a poor man (Laurence Ejoh), the barber collapses from a heart attack. Instead of calling for an ambulance on a phone that's disconnected, or rushing the victim off to the hospital, Murphy's character begins an extended verbal attack on the barber for "rejecting his aid."

While the timid barber's assistant (Thaddeus Edwards) gapes on in bewilderment, Murphy's character ridicules the assistant's attempts at intervention, and manhandles the conversation away from any possibility of rescuing the barber. Forget CPR: What Murphy's character believes is most needed is "to agree upon a postulate to start."

Rhetoric sabotages action in the diplomatic realm and in the world of flesh and blood, Rotimi argues, in a work which at times echoes Ionesco's The Lesson and moments from Sartre.

Though an uneven supporting cast reflects production values that at times delve into the amateur, clearly Rotimi's work should be seen. Director Kole Heyward-Rotimi, the playwright's son, has a worthy project here--to bring to regional stages the work of his father and other artists whose commentary on contemporary African culture substantively informs our own. Further rehearsal and restaging of Holding Talks is very much in order for those who missed it last weekend.

Jewish theater may have been a bit more commonplace in this region than Nigerian theater up to now. But rarely has it been handled with more warmth than in 2nd Avenue South's Crossing Delancey. The humble surroundings of North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theater reflected the trappings of community theater, which director (and regional stage veteran) Al Singer embraced in a pre-show speech on Saturday night.

But a performance like Sylvia Dante's authoritative turn as Bubbie, a Jewish grandmother with a kind heart, a titanium spine, an eagle eye for doubletalk--and a killer recipe for kugel--lifts this show out of the realm of the everyday. Susan Sandler's story tries to show a contemporary woman's conflicts with tradition, but sentiment clearly becomes the guiding impulse early on. A cast whose considerable talents we've seen before (including Seth and Rebecca Blum and David Klionsky) was still getting comfortable with characters and timing on the night we saw it. Still, what we saw encourages us enough to encourage you: Visit your grandmother once in a while. And see Crossing Delancey.

The dilemma of cultural assimilation faces Polish central character Jan Sadlowski in David Ives' Polish Joke. The bedrock laughs and verities of the opening scenes feature Jack Prather's fine performance as a young boy with more questions than answers. Early on, our sympathies are definitely engaged by Rod Rich in one of his most affecting on-stage performances ever as Jan's Uncle Roman, and David Berberian at a similarly auspicious career milepost as a robust Catholic priest.

But these richly drawn characters from the old neighborhood dissipate to an alarming degree as Ives--whose previous comedies we've thoroughly enjoyed--tries far too hard to solve a problem in this well-intentioned play. In his attempts to come up with the answer (in a single play) to what cultural stereotyping does to the stereotyped, Ives forays through lengthy, ham-handed sketches on the fabled luck of the Irish. Subsequent soapbox psychologizing reduces the impact of Jan's act one closing monologue, and the narrative given an airline representative toward the end of Act Two.

As might be predicted, Jan spends the first part of the play trying to pass for anything but Polish, before just as unsuccessfully trying to convince someone towards the end that he is.

Limited redemption comes with the brief return of a dying but unperturbed Uncle Roman at the end: When a guy like him can say, "If God wants me to die, I've got nothing to worry about," we know deep down he's a good egg. Polish Joke closes on a decent punch line. Now if only getting there was half the fun.

Fabric artist Maria Rowan vividly recalls her first visit in over a year, with her friend, choreographer Alyssa Ghirardelli, one day this past March. Ghirardelli was sitting in the front room of Rowan's Carrboro house, where some of her newest work was hanging. "She was sitting so quietly," Rowan says, "I knew she either didn't feel well, hated the living room, or hated my work."

But that wasn't the reason for Ghirardelli's silence. "When I came back in, Alyssa said, really quietly, 'You have to see my work. We have to show our work together.'"

The odd coincidence was the subject matter--the overtly water-based imagery of Rowan's Surfacing: Dream Series, a set of dyed fabric artworks three years in the making, and the video-based water imagery of Ghirardelli's dance piece Surface Tension, premiering that weekend at the spring Choreo Collective concert.

After seeing the work, Rowan concluded "if we weren't having exactly similar experiences at the same time, we were collaborating and didn't know it."

"We were both collaborating with something, if not necessarily each other," she adds.

There are a number of striking parallels between Ghirardelli's dance work and Rowan's colored fabric, in which she utilizes arashi shibori, a Japanese dye technique in which the fabric resists the dye to varying degrees. The effect suggests prismatic waves of sunlight in bright water--and a host of things below the surface. The same effects come from the physical movement and ambient video in Ghirardelli's work.

See for yourself when both art forms are paired together, Friday night at 8:30 p.m. at Wellness Partners in the Arts, a downtown Durham studio and performance space. EndBlock

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