Theatre Mirror Reviews - "African American Theatre Festival"

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Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark

The 9th African American Theatre Festival

by Our Place Theatre Project

An Assessment by Larry Stark

Set Design by Peter Colao
Lighting Design by Jonathan Bonner
Props by Nicole Parker
Set Built by Wooden Kiwi
Production Stage Manager Marie Castro
Stage Manager Preston Graveline

The OUR PLACE THEATRE PROJECT is a whole bunch of different things, and it has been growing in several important directions for at least nine years now. Like any effort centered on minority peoples here in Boston it is always strapped for money, but for those same reasons it's always cut a little slack when criticism-time rolls around --- people take into consideration the struggle that it takes to exist at all before passing judgement --- and I think that is justified. Other local companies look for financial or artistic achievements and can be judged as such. But most of them don't teach theater to children, as Our Place does; they aren't comitted to teaching people about the rich history of their own race, as Our Place is; they are not trying to ignite and expand a people's pride in themselves, as Our Place tries. Perhaps for others, money (or "money-reviews") is a bottom-line measure of success, but Our Place by its very nature has to have different goals. Rather than "reviewing" the plays in this year's Festival as though they were in competition with every other company in the BCA, or in Boston, for attention and money, I'd like to think about how close the company has come to fulfilling those high goals set for itself. I think Our Place comes out half empty, but half full as well.

But in a real sense there is no reason why you should believe anything I say about Black experience. *** I mean, I ain't Black! Worse, since I turned my back on my Dutch Reformed heritage at age 14 I'm not a Christian, and certainly not a Pentecostal "Holy Roller" Baptist, and given the choice, I would prefer listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington or Nat King Cole over Mahalia Jackson any day in the week, Sundays included. I don't think I qualify as what the original pig-latin labels an "o-fay" --- I've thrilled to the works of Ntozake Shange and August Wilson and even Amiri (LeRoi Jones) Baraka --- but I haven't paid the dues or gathered the expertise and background that Kay Bourne has. So as you read what I have to say, keep about a pound of salt at your elbow, and think for yourself.

At bottom, Our Place functions as a school, giving young people instruction and chances to perform. In that sense, the Festival is partly a "recital" giving students a chance to demonstrate "what I learned in school this year." And here the Project was, this year, a rousing success. In Jacqui Parker's play "Bess The Brave" four kids played, well kids --- picking cotton and clustering around the dinner-table. Cayla M. Johnson, Cheyenne Jones, Deniece Woodward and Yves Gillard-Fontaine, all still in grade-school, turned in excellent performances. Also, in Robert Johnson's play "Mother G", four girls --- Leeta White, Cayla M. Johnson, Vanessa Cassidy and Melissa Erilus--- together sang as a church-choir but also played the spontaneously-signifying congregation answering the pastor's testifying. In both these plays, the youngsters were a stand-out success.

In another sense, Our Place glowingly passed a sort of loyalty-test: alums from the school and actors who worked in past Festivals turned out once again in surprising numbers --- and many a bio listed plays elsewhere that had benefitted from their Our Place expertise. Just look at this list: Marie Castro, David J. Curtis, Jason Cross, Talaya Freeman, Lakeisha Gillard, Cayla M. Johnson, Cheyesse Jones, James Milord, Alphonzo Moultrie, Deniece R. Woodward, Marvelyn McFarlane, and Eboni Walcott.

Those last two in my opinion turned in starring performances in big, complicated roles. In "Mother G" McFarlane played a young gospel-singer seduced and impregnated by her church's haughty pastor who convinced the men of the congregation to hush it up --- only to haveMother G and the women secede and form a new church, bringing husbands along with them. In a role requiring singing and acting, she stood out.

And Eboni Walcott was the quicksilver spark-plug of for me the best play of the series --- the first act of a Zora Neale Hurston bio-play "Feathers on My Arm..." directed by the playwright, Jacqui Parker. As a young Southern child, her explosive imagination sending her spinning across the world in all directions at once, Walcot danced and pirouetted on bare toes fighting phantoms and building universes --- and attracting the wrath of a preacher-father (James Milord? or was it Alphonse Moultrie?) who favored safe propriety over free expression. In the second act ("Zora Neale Flyin' High"), dealing with The Harlem Rennasance and collaboration and quarrels with Langston Hughes, Walcott put on shoes and a cloche-hat --- but the play bogged down into quick snippets telling rather than showing any of the writer's triumphs at the full flower of her career. The only memorable sequence had Zora on the dance-floor forcing the entire cast to follow her irrepressible lead. Nonetheless, the entire cast --- also including Talaya Freeman, Marvelyn McFarlane and Abigail Walter --- worked marvelously together, the five of them flitting from role to role so expertly it seemed there must be a dozen different actors waiting impatiently in the wings to spar with Walcott's Zora.

To my mind, not only in this year's Festival but in others past, the cold hand of history tends to strangle drama too often in Our Place productions. Here Robert Johnson's "Mother G" introduced me, for good or ill, to styles of gospel-singing and congregation-participation that look like religious fervor to believers, but seem only showing-off to my atheistic eyes. And the alibi that "it's fact; it's history!" doesn't enliven or add any drama to what is essentially a lecture with illustrating slides. The story of Johnson's mom seemed to me a cliche situation (remember "Elmer Gantry"?) saved only by the ladies' secession. (I've seen only three of Johnson's plays, but the best, I think, was about a group of Black enlistees going from the North through the Jim-Crow South in World War II; "The Train Ride" it was called.)

The worst example of tell-don't-show history-lesson was Jacqui Parker's "Bess The Brave" directed by Sharon Squires. After a scene in which a family talked while they all picked cotton, one of them decided to follow her dream and fly airplanes. But from that point on, the entire story was told by Bessie Coleman (Lakeisha Gillard) and her family, on opposite sides of the stage, pretending to write or to read letters. "Tomorrow I'm going to jump from the plane with a parachute" said the barn-storming pilot. "That ought to make the state fair a lot more interesting." Well, for me it didn't.

I regret not having seen the other play on the bill: Lillian Helman's "The Children's Hour" directed by Jacqui Parker. I read my calendar wrong and went to the wrong theatre. However, Kay Bourne and Beverly Creasey reviewed it quite favorably.

For me, when the Our Place THEATRE Project does its 10th Annual African American THEATRE Festival, I hope there's a lot more Show rather than Tell on the bill. I mean, late in the pair of Hurston plays the cast lined up and reeled off the titles of TEN different plays the woman had produced on Broadway.

Instead of telling me that, couldn't they next year Show me one of them?

I can remember, thirty-nine years ago, sitting at the Elma Lewis School waiting for a play to begin, when Jim Spruill the director sat down beside me and said "Well, we took a vote whether to let you stay; but it was six to six, so you can stay or go as you like." I didn't stay, but I told him wherever and by whomever plays were done, I wanted Boston After Dark to cover them --- "so please, find me a Black reviewer!"
I never found one. There was Kay Bourne --- but she already worked for The Bay State Banner. Luckily, she's still reviewing, but by e-mail. She can be reached at

( a k a larry stark )

9th African American Theatre Festival (27 May - 13 April)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA

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