note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark
Set Design by John Weiss
Lighting Design by Karen Perlo
Mama Alice.................Diana Benson
This review is a week late, and I apologize for that. I was of two minds about reviewing plays that are still "under construction". But new plays and new playwrights need to know what works, and there is a lot in Renita Martin's play that does. She has a genuine feel for the rhythms and the music of her world, and she knows how to imply the things that connect this family's differing members. The play is very deep in subtexts.
The scene is a small backwater town in Mississippi, the Black family has been reduced to an aging grandmother who is a front-porch gossip who enjoys the comeuppance of the proud prominent matriarch of her church's most troubled family: two brothers (one gay) dead, one daughter an outed lesbian, the other a hopeless crack-head. It's this "Queen Esther Mims' " decision to bury one brother in state while cremating his gay sibling in disgrace that sets tongues wagging.
Mama Alice is a born story-teller, scattering judgements and opinions and exagerations in her gossip, maintaining older, traditional values, but holding people to a common human decency. her long, intricate sentences and continual asides are reminiscent of the prose style of William Faulker, embellished by a strong infusion of Black experience. The richness of this stew of story is as musical as it is enjoyable.
Her charges, Young Rose and younger Shortcake, are both rambunctious and respectful, giving their elder her due while still trying to assert their uppity independence. And Rose, though she'd die if anyone found out, is bonded in love with Queen Esther's flamboyantly lesbian daughter Soot, and does what she can both to aid Soot's attempts to dignify her dead gay brother and to keep Soot from threatened shock-treatments to "cure" her lesbianism.
An awful lot of plot already, right? Well, there's a lot more besides, perhaps more Southern Gothic than a Northern audience can hold. But once the style and the rhetrical flow becomes familiar, Playwright Martin piles revelation on revelation, breaking the tension again and again with the sibling squabbles and irreverent comments from the two kids. Most of the big events in this play are told about rather than shown, but such is her magical language that they are more astonishing heard about than they could be enacted.
The great news here is the "voice" of this young playwright, and her feeling for the small southern town it speaks of. Surely this is the first of what could be a long series of stories and characters she knows down to their very toenails.
The actors here enjoyed the flavor and the music in an infectious way. Perhaps having the playwright in the cast added to that enjoyment. Certainly when Elizabeth Amelia Hadley "rough-hewed" this production and Maureen Shea "shaped its ends" they had a solid crew of experienced Black actors and a rich text to work with. It was a good beginning to the three-ring circus of shows that CentaStage and the Underground Railway Theater will be presenting these weeks at the bustling Boston Center for The Arts. These new plays are early works of tomorrow's playwrights, and I have determined to see as many as I can and to give each play a full review. And I expect it to be well worth every night of it.