Atlanta-based writer Pearl Cleage has written some solid dramas focusing on black women at various points in American history, including the Harlem Renaissance (Blues for an Alabama Sky) and the late 19th century frontier days (Flyin' West). She doesn't have as much success with comedy, judging from the The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years, having its area premiere in a clunky production at African American Repertory Theater.
It's easy to see where it could be an enjoyable, if slight, play, but director Ptosha Storey's staging, with an uneven cast, doesn't do the job.
In Montgomery, Ala. in the 1960s, Grace Dunbar (Cheryl Tyre) is the grande dame of the Nacirema Society, a group of well-to-do black women 1960s, planning the next debutante ball in which her granddaughter Gracie (Perrí Camper) will be queen, and then married off to the only well-bred bachelor in town fits into their world of high-society, Bobby (Christopher Piper).
Gracie's mom Marie (Catherine Whiteman) and Bobby's mother Catherine (Tippi Hunter) are helping, too, but a wrench is thrown into everyone's plans when Alpha (Regina Washington) devises a scheme to suggest that Grace's late husband is really the father of her niece Lillie (Whitney Coulter). Either she'll get an inheritance or a pay-off to shut up.
All of this coincides with the visit to the Dunbar home by a New York Times writer, Janet (Nadine Marissa), who's doing a story on the society.
Cleage's set-up for each of these situations is cumbersome, and Storey doesn't help with awkward transitions and no clear ideas about how to move the large cast on James Thomas' sprawling and nicely conceived but poorly executed set. Aside from having a library, it doesn't look like the abode of a wealthy family.
The actors don't seem to know if they're in a straight-forward comedy or a farce, and many of Cleage's punchlines fall flat with bad timing and odd line delivery, especially from Tyre. Your favorite character, and performance, will likely be from Liz Francisco as the black domestic, Jessie, who doesn't say a word but offers plenty of sly comments on the proceedings with her smirks and busy-bodying.
AART started off with it good track record—more hits than misses in its first few seasons. But that didn't hold up in its fourth season, and it's not looking good for season five. But there are still two more productions to come.
Here's hoping they can get back on track.