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Naeemah A.White-Peppers makes strong debut directing Albee's 'At Home at the Zoo'

Jules Becker | 5/25/2011, 12:38 p.m.
Photo courtesy of Naeemah A.White-PeppersJules BeckerSometimes gifted actors make remarkable directors. A case...
Photo courtesy of Naeemah A.White-Peppers



Sometimes gifted actors make remarkable directors. A case in point is Naeemah A.White-Peppers.

An IRNE and Elliot T. Norton Award winner, the 35-year-old actress has dazzled the Black Box Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts in such Zeitgeist Stage Company fare as “Chain” and “The Credeaux Canvas” with some of the most exciting local performances in this critic’s memory.

Now she is making an auspicious professional directing debut with the second act of the Hub premiere of Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo.”

While White-Peppers has been performing since childhood - singing since the age of eight - she has also been working her way toward this professional debut. Though she earned her bachelors degree at Harvard in child psychology, she acted in such Harvard Radcliffe Drama Society productions as “Jumpers,” “Cabaret” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Demonstrating her commitment to both performance and staging, she not only acted in George Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” but also co-directed and played Ruth in a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” - both productions of an African American company named Black Cast.

She even had the opportunity to mount a musical created by a good friend’s thesis called “Songs We Can’t Sing,” the odyssey of an African young man who comes of age in America.

Now White-Peppers is coming of age as a director with Albee’s modern classic 1958 play “The Zoo Story,” the second part of a two-act 2004 play  “At Home at the Zoo,”  re-titled “Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo” in 2009.

Revisiting the harrowing Central Park bench confrontation of middle-class publishing executive Peter and troubled boarding house loner Jerry, Albee strikingly added the back story of Peter’s marriage in a first act called “Homelife.”

Peter and wife Anne may not engage in the kind of high tension encounter that dominates the second act, but dissatisfactions surface early in their conversation only to escalate in their exchanges about sex, love and their marriage.

Leaving a domestic menagerie including two cats and two parakeets beyond four ‘human’ animals - the couple and their two daughters - Peter heads for Central Park, where the disheartened boarder challenges him with “The Story of Jerry and the Dog.” As Albee fans know, this encounter ends with a riveting face-off from which Peter cannot flee.

Zeitgeist artistic director David Miller and White Peppers make the contrast between the verbal hostilties that erupt in “Homelife” and the physical fireworks of “Zoo Story” hauntingly vivid.

Miller has summoned powerfully understated performances from Peter Brown as Peter and Christine Powers as Ann. Both actors capture the music of Albee’s language and the dissonance that often dominates their exchanges.

White Peppers has fired up Brown and Miller in a tautly directed second act so that their moves and reactions become a fight for human dignity and respect as much as a singular battle of wits.

Brown evokes the ‘animal’ territoriality of Peter in defending his regular reading bench with arresting rage.

Veteran director Miller (among others, the fine recent IRNE – nominated “Private Fears in Public Places) , in a compelling  return to the stage, catches Jerry’s despair as well as his volatility as a human being who seems as marginalized by the world as by his neighbors. As usual, Miller makes more of less at the Black Box - with a first act living room with Mondrian print and African sculpture and a second act Central Park of large hanging tree limbs -- than many fellow designers do in much larger spaces.

Albee strikingly returned to the terrain of  “Zoo Story,” and all theatergoers are much richer for his efforts. Likewise, Miller and White-Peppers have return to earlier interests with satisfying results.

Edward Albee’s ‘At Home at the Zoo,’ Zeitgeist Stage, Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 29. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.