note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Larry Stark
Poets: Darius Omar Williams; Nicole Parker; Mary Driscoll; VCR; Sandra Williams
Montez Cardwell; Jackie Davis; Michelle Eunis; Talaya Freeman; Cheyenne Jones; Shauday Johnson-Jones; Ireta Bethune Joseph; Lornece Jayner; Danny Matta; Nicole Parker; Frank A. Shefton; Wesley Taylor; Atarah Williams; Darius Omar Williams; Karimah Williams; Sandra Williams
Belle Mae Riley........................Jacqui Parker
Jessie Riley..........................Keedar Whittle
Tweet Riley............................Taylor Parker
Jess. Jr. Riley........................Derek Jackson
Sheriff Winslow............................Jeff Gill
Big Boy Riley.........................Keedar Whittle
Ella Jenkins.............................Valerie Lee
Cornelius Benjamin III...David Curtis/Ernst Berrouet
Johnny Milam...............................Jeff Gill
This is the sixth annual African American Theatre Festival produced by the OUR PLACE THEATRE PROJECT --- and it presents firm evidence that this teaching-company, centered in Roxbury, is through its adolescence and has Come Of Age. Several in the company have grown from cute kids to competent performers; they have found a style, a voice, and subjects that are completely their own; and with "Dark as A Thousand Midnights" their playwright-in-residence Jacqui Parker has given them a major world premiere like nothing she has written before. So this isn't a Good BLACK Company anymore; it's a good company, Period.
For their first week, the "Rhythm of The People" is a bits-and-pieces demonstration of the company's strengths and styles. It starts with a dance-and-poetry restatement of Black American history, from roots through capture, enslavement, middle-passage, and auction-block. The use of ensemble movement and ritual dance has been a technique of Our Place since its inception.
The ten pieces in the first half of this program talk of the frustrations of Negro pilots on the ground after flying fighter escort on bombing missions, of Black experience in Africa today and in America yesterday, and nappy hair. Then come four short plays that range through Black experience emphasizing wit, satire, and exuberant criticism and humor. The final piece "Last Mama on The Couch" is a short parody of cliche Black Plays that takes no prisoners.
But "Dark as A Thousand Midnights" --- playing all next week --- is not one of those Cliche`s, but a big play tackling big ideas. It is set in a small rural suburb of the Mississippi town where Emitt Till was murdered. That story is recounted in film-projections and radio-bulletins, while the main story traces the effect of that crime on a Black carpenter and his family trying to live and prosper with whatever dignity the Klan will let them keep, or make them defend, on their few acres of homeland.
Playwright Parker --- who plays a still-young mother of two --- may have taken as her model the broadly episodic novels of William Faulkner. The Riley Family includes a grandfather whose mind was blown away by a stroke; his two daughters, one a pretty flirt unwillingly back from an escape to Harlem (Valerie Lee), the other the family's matriarch (Parker); their brain-damaged retarded brother (Keedar Whittle); the two growing children (Taylor Parker and Derek Jackson); and Bell Mae's rock-solid husband (also played by Keedar Whittle). Except for the invalid grandfather inside their two-story house, every one of them gets time center-stage to define a unique character complete with back-story and motivations set up by the plot.
This is a South where Bell Mae Riley can be beset by ambiguous visions of the future when, with a Japanese sword grandad brought home from WWII clutched in her hand, she faces faceless demons. It's a South where Niggers protesting sham trials and injustice can expect warning-shots or kidnapped children, where NAACP-lawyers from New York only exaggerate the general restlessness, and where secrets of parentage can fester and explode.
There is more --- why, for instance, would Aunt Ella forsake New York to live again where she has to bang on a pot with a spatula to frighten rattlers away before entering the outhouse? And why would her New York lawyer friend (David Curtis) greet her so warmly after what He thinks is a spat of jealousy? Why would the White Sheriff (Jeff Gill) warn a protesting Black family of White injustice on the march?
Perhaps the play could use one more careful re-write and a little sandpaper, but the dialogue is crisp and human, the conflicts in several directions well contained by family love, and details of plot are both surprising yet logical --- like life. A play which can say "Emitt Till's death has made every Negro child precious" has in its heart a clear-eyed yet hopeful integrity every playwright should envy.
On opening night the play endured technical glitches that only served to emphasize the fact that Director Darius Omar Williams had worked so well with his multi-aged cast that nothing could derail them from arriving at a much deserved final standing ovation. Things will improve --- including, I hope, a much larger and well-deserved audience for this play's seven remaining performances.