A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Last Rites"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Larry Stark

"Last Rites"

by Letta Neely
Directed by Brian Freeman

Scenic Design by Mirta Tocci
Lighting Design by Nicolas Vargelis
Costume Design by Mikki Shefton
Sound Designer Jeff Wragg
Dialect Coach Paula J. Caplan
Basketball Coach Darcy Winer
Cancer Specialists Dr. Nancy Norman, Dr. Carol Brayboy
Photographer Craig Bailey
Production Manager David Wengertsman
Assistant Stage Manager Robbie Gray
Stage Manager Brenda Morris

Dutch.......Naeemah A. White Peppers
Patrice................Renita Martin
Asha.....................Abria Smith
Ms. Earline............Michelle Dowd

This is becoming a "Banner" year for Black theater in Boston.
Wearing his IRNE award as best actor, Vincent E. Siders showed us why he won in "Our Lady of 121st Street" --- and next week he'll be directing six one-acts for the Up You Mighty Race company and his own New African Company when "Black Power" opens --- and the IRNE best solo actress Naeemah A. White-Peppers opened this week in the world premiere of Letta Neely's blazing "Last Rites" produced by IRNE honoree Abe Rybeck's Theater Offensive --- every one of them at the Boston Center for The Arts.

"Last Rites" will be in contention (at least in my mind) for several IRNEs this year --- already a runaway great year for theater here --- so if you of a mind to see how awards are won you better haul your ass down to the BCA and stand in line, 'cause that place is what we call "intimate" and for the next three week-ends they won't be calling it "The Black Box" for nothing!

Opening night was packed with a "layered" audience ready to groove on specific aspects of the play. There were Black folk ready to pick up on down and dirty put-down contests atween two home-girls been butch since the seventh grade. And that let a inter-racial lezzie crowd kick back and enjoy the fireworks, with more male members of the crowd signifying and perhaps a recovering coke-head or two snickering in recognition here and there. But there were also choirs of students from Tufts and representatives of a Breast Cancer Support Group lending a different kind of experience/response to the show. And back in the stage-right corner sat this one white-haired straight old white guy with his cane under his chair mumbling "Jesus God, this is a fucking textbook on Real Life today that everyone Must See!"

And Director Brian Freeman played that divergent audience like a Goddamn synthesizer, picking out rhythms to the quips and jibes, sparking quick pockets of giggles from now one contengent, now another, silencing the entire crowd when the serious subtexts surfaced, and letting every one of his four solidly experienced women Earn their moments in what was, essentially, an unbroken exercize in flawlessly natural ensemble playing.

Letta Neely's play centers on Patrice, played by Renita Martin, who has checked herself out of a cancer ward to die --- clear-headed and clear-eyed --- in the apartment of her life-long rival, friend, and occasional lover Dutch (Naeemah A. White-Peppers). The play is called "Last Rites" and some of those rites include coming to terms with past mistakes as well as trying to see to it that what survives is memories of a life lived to the gutsiest limit with no apology and no regret. But talked about in the no-bullshit banter of two no-quarter basketball divas for whom one-on-one has always been a way of life.

All of act one is this pair dishing, dissing and reminiscing like locker-room ladies, with a couple quick, beautifully-handled flashback-sequences to their days on a championship high-school team. Martin endures allowing someone else to change her "Depens" and launches into a painfully direct explanation of having a doctor "take" her breasts, of she and her lover Asha quitting coke cold when told the cheemo wouldn't work on the nodes unless they did --- and all of it, or most of it, couched in the no-tears breezy honesty of old, enduring friendship.

Dutch is the practical one --- a high-steel worker enjoying physical labor and the look of the city from the skeleton of a new high-rise. White Peppers refuses to join the flights of her friend's self-fantasies, and on the sly blandly lies both to Asha and to Patrice's mother that the dying woman wants to see them before the end.

And that sets up act two, with all four ladies settled into chairs as solidly as they are in their defensive positions. Michele Dowd's Ms. Earline is the rigid wife of a preacher who will never forgive her daughter's choice of a life-style destining her to the eternal flames of hell, even when clasping their hands around a Bible and praying that it's Never Too Late for redemption. Dowd's handling of an Island accent subtly underscores her distance from her own daughter's world. The things her daughter had stolen to buy drugs are really metaphors for that Good Christian Daughter she sees stolen by Satan.

Abria M. Smith's Asha is young and flash, and went back to coke when the cancer came back. She snorts through a straw, inviting her lover to join her --- now that it no longer matters. It is Patrice's one fear that her true friend and her true love will get together when she's gone, because she sees that Asha's drug dependency can only ruin both of them.

Neely's second act, coming after the rich stew of the first, feels short. It is true that each one of these monumental women deserves a full-length play of her own.

Ah well --- maybe. Next year?

Letta Neely lives and writes right here in Jamaica Plain, though her plays have travelled across the continent, along with her poetry. And, for another three week-ends "Last Rites" will play to packed houses at the BCA.
Maybe you ought to call for reservations NOW!


"Last Rites" (7 - 24 April)
The Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremony Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 426-2787

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide