New York — A festival of new, short plays is almost inevitably going to be a mixed bag. From direction to scripting to performance, results will be variable, with some works resonating despite their brevity, and others landing with the proverbial thud. However, the new presentation by 7th Stage Productions, Stage Black 2014, which ran last weekend in New York and plays Aug. 22-24 at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters' Clarence Muse Café Theater, manages to largely defy received wisdom. While only a couple of the slices of contemporary African-American life presented here really wrestle with complex questions, an overall strength of both production and performance quality makes this an entertaining package deal likely to please audiences, especially those looking for work that diverges somewhat from the typical urban theater circuit offerings.
The production is introduced and the plays connected by interstitial music cues of popular R&B and soul music tunes that elicited a strong response from the audience and certainly established and maintained engagement effectively. Sing-alongs and finger snaps are a pretty reliable signal that the audience is ready to invest in what you have to offer. And as the lights come up on the first play, Frank’s Girls, the investment from the audience was evident, although not necessarily merited. Directed by Cindy Malika, the play features the return home of Rayla (Shashone Lambert), the apparent family misfit who has a contentious relationship with her flamboyant mother, Vivian (Felicia Mathis) and her younger sister Liliana (Positive), who is too much like their mother for Rayla’s tastes. Vivian’s diva-like airs and Liliana’s mimicry of Vivian’s dress and mannerisms drives the more down-to-earth Rayla crazy, as does her beloved father Frank’s (Beethoven Ogden) tolerance of their antics.
As the tension rises, confrontations ensue, with an abrupt reveal of a long-held family secret that doesn’t feel honestly earned, but rather plopped into the narrative for shock effect. However, that reveal does lead to a nice quiet scene between Frank and Rayla, exploring the idea that family should be more about accepting each other’s faults, especially in light of one’s own frailties, rather than scoring points or highlighting ways in which we feel wronged. This results in an at least temporary rapprochement, although a last minute touch on a running joke about the sexuality of Liliana’s unseen-until-the-end boyfriend Mark (KJ Adams) dissipates that good feeling a bit. The script by Cherie Wilborn is rather broad and has something of a soap opera feel, and while the characters of Vivian and Liliana are intended to be over-the-top, the performances of Mathis and Positive in these respective roles feel a bit amateurish (including stepped-on and shaky line readings) and out-of-sync with the more naturalistic work of Ogden and Lambert. Overall, while the audience seemed to enjoy their time with Frank and his “girls,” the play was a bit weak and melodramatic, especially in light of some of the subsequent offerings.
KJ Adams returns in the two-actor piece Papa, in which he co-stars with Karmia Berry in the tale of a man who discovers his father, already ill with prostate cancer, has just suffered a heart attack and is on the verge of death. Written by Lou Johnson and directed by Eric Dickens, Papa takes a turn when Robert is forced to reveal to his concerned wife the reason for his reluctance to leave for Memphis to check on his father. When the story emerges, Maxine is shocked to learn that Robert’s father essentially has maintained two families, one with his wife and children, and one with Mark’s mother and siblings.
While Maxine’s shock and disgust are initially understandable, eventually her attitude begins to seem harsh and judgmental in the face of Mark’s long-held knowledge and his father’s precarious condition. Eventually, she realizes that support for her husband’s trepidation and fear should trump her own disapproval, largely through Mark’s revelation of his concerns about what place he and his siblings really occupy in the space of his father’s life. Adams gives a nicely modulated performance, beautifully conveying Robert’s insecurity and need for acceptance. Berry follows the dictates of the script in terms of her character’s attitude, but as she thaws, she and Adams find a lovely energy that feels authentic and sweet.
Presenting a deceptively comic change of pace from the “family secrets revealed” theme of the first two plays, Space Relations is something altogether different. This comedic story concerning a disputed residential parking spot, directed by Marcus Harvey and scripted by Bernard Tarver, evolves into a thoughtful exploration of gentrification, changing demographics and what it means to truly be neighbors. As a new resident on the street looking to park his car, Evans (Chris Raglin) is full of pronouncements about public spaces and legalities, while long-time resident Al (Beethoven Ogden) is the indignant defender of “…MY parking space in front of MY house,” the space he got up early to shovel free of snow and is holding for his wife’s return from work with a chair.
The space, it turns out, everyone on the street knows is his, just as the other neighbors hold their spaces with lawn equipment and barbecue grills. Evans is the interloper who doesn’t know the rules, while Al, with the aid of another long-time neighbor, Richie, is all too happy to educate the newcomer on the way things are on THEIR street. All three performers are top-notch, with Ogden in particular delivering a multilayered performance that is hilarious yet laced with anger and a reluctance to see things change that seems both stubborn and poignant. Space Relations superficially seems to be the lightest piece, devoid as it is of domestic sturm and drang. But it may ultimately be the most resonant, addressing complicated issues about the way we live with and around each other with a deft touch.
After a brief intermission, the production resumed with Late Nights Early Mornings, written by Eric Dickens with direction by Kimberly Avon. The play picks up in the heat of battle, as Zanobia (Glynn Davis) tells her partner Joshua (KJ Adams) that she cannot reach out to her estranged father to borrow the money he needs to launch his own business. Although Joshua assures her he is only asking to try to secure their future, Zanobia is sympathetic but unmoved. When Joshua, frustrated, leaves for work, Zanobia attempt to spend a little quiet time alone is disrupted by a knock on the door, heralding the arrival of an unexpected visitor. Quincy (Chris Raglin), Zanobia’s old college boyfriend and now a successful musician, has returned, and not just for a visit. Quincy is determined to rekindle the love he and Zanobia shared before he left her behind to pursue his music career. But despite her undeniable feelings for her ex, much has happened to Zanobia since they parted, including a bout with serious illness and painful choices as a result. She has changed, and sometimes, going back is not an option.
The story of Late Nights Early Mornings is hardly original or particularly challenging, but it is nicely explored, with fine performances from the three principals. Raglin and Davis share a brief musical interlude, harkening back to their characters’ college years performing together, and the two have lovely voices that blend beautifully and aptly illustrate the frisson between them. While the audience suspects Zanobia is making the “right” choice rather than the one her heart would prefer, Adams uses his brief scenes to signal that Joshua is truly a good and loving man, as well as a devoted one. The difference between romance and commitment is the story here, and while hardly innovative, it is effectively told.
The final play, Strangers, returns to the theme of family secrets, and this one’s a doozy. Violet (Ilana Warner), a black woman, has just discovered her partner of a decade and father of her child, Joel (Zadie Walker) has been lying about his family being dead. Joel, who is white, has been misguidedly trying to protect the woman and child he loves from an apparently virulently racist family, who don’t even know he has a child, let alone a biracial one. But with a heretofore unknown-to-Violet brother whose child needs a bone marrow transplant, Joel has come clean in the hopes that their daughter may be a match for his niece. Written by Kendra Augustin and directed by Daphnie Sicre, Strangers is melodramatic yet incisive, managing to raise some real questions about the nature of love and acceptance and the sacrifices that people sometimes make to sustain a relationship, even at the expense of their sense of self.
Warner is all righteous fire here, and a line she delivers about what the impact would be on her child’s self-esteem to learn her father’s family would despise her because of the color of her skin strikes a powerful chord. Walker is not as strong as Warner, and his Joel seems more hapless and conflict-avoidant than truly protective. But the actors manage to evoke a sense of love and history between them, and the audience seemed divided between identification with Violet and sympathy for Joel, which I suspect was the aim. A recurring theme in the show is that only people close to Violet are allowed to use her nickname of “Vi,” and Joel loses that privilege early on. Whether he will get it back remains to be seen, but the performers manage to enlist the audience into caring about the uncertain resolution.
Overall, Stage Black’s production was well-mounted, with effective lighting design by Colin Cauche (especially in Space in Relations, in which muted and indirect lighting evoked an exterior setting well, particularly given that the only real prop is Al’s all-important chair) and thoughtful sets and props, which conjured dining rooms, living rooms and bedrooms with good old-fashioned furniture, lamps and dinnerware. Managed by the production team of Melvin Shadd, Timothy Jones and Greg Reid, there was no minimalist, “suggested” set design here. Producer Tony Thompson has assembled works of varying quality and resonance, but as a whole the production features some solid performances, strong settings and effective direction, well-balanced between male and female directors and playwrights.
The Dallas performances will feature new actors and directors, so it remains to be seen how cohesive the production will feel with different talent at the helm. But if the New York audience’s appreciation is any indication (some audience members indicated they were returning attendees), Dallas theatergoers should be in for an enjoyable and occasionally thought-provoking experience.