Stage reviews: Pittsburgh Playwrights holiday-themed Black & White festival is a winner

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A decade whizzes by. That's how long Pittsburgh Playwrights has been staging its annual Theatre Festival in Black & White, Mark Clayton Southers' innovative program of one-act plays, half by black playwrights, half by white, with each assigned a director of the other color, while the actors vary according to what the playwrights write.

'Theatre Festival in Black & White'
Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights, 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
When: Through Dec. 17.
Tickets: or at the door.

The result has been a celebration of ethnic diversity as well as varied subjects and skills. Whether the diversity of the audience measures up depends on us.

For the 10th annual festival (it skipped one year), Mr. Southers and co-coordinator Eric Smith have done something new. Instead of selecting from open submissions and one year the "best of" previous festivals, they commissioned 10 Pittsburgh playwrights, half black, half white, to write on a holiday theme.

What that theme or even holiday might be depended on the playwrights. So Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and Hanukkah all make appearances. Dominant is the search for concord in the face of divergent traditions and the pressures of the holidays. After all, theater is all about conflict, the message of peace and good will notwithstanding.

Partly because the playwrights were invited, the general level this year is higher than usual; there are no busts. But none are short: each program is about 2½ hours. Some plays are better than others, of course, but you can't pick and choose. So whichever your program, or both, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Program A

In Marlon Erik Youngblood's "Just Jesus," directed by Kaitlin Mausser, a young college daughter (Ife Foy) tries to convince her successful but somewhat dysfunctional family to adopt Kwanzaa. She has the playwright's sympathy, but the family, especially the ambitious but shallow son (Eugene Banks), has the best lines. Some good writing, but more rehearsal would have helped.

Andrew Ade's "True Meaning," directed by Rita Gregory, asks us to care about a sister (Tonya Lynn) who just can't accept the happiness of her brother and pregnant wife. The snark gets all the best lines, but our sympathy is with the couple. The brother (Adam Rutledge) has an appealing ease on stage.

Program A sizzles to a higher level with Lissa Brennan's farce, "And to All a Good Night," directed by Cheryl El Walker, which exploits that great holiday tradition, the family brouhaha. James and Vanessa (Bill Blair and Willa Cotton) anxiously await their son's arrival with his white girlfriend (Sara Fisher), but race doesn't provide remotely as divisive as religion when it turns out she and now their son are atheists with no use for Christmas. Meanwhile, a Moms Mabley-like Grandma (Jamilah Chanie) pretty much steals the show. Play this a bit faster and we'd be choking on our laughter.

The serious heart of this program is Wali Jamal's "St. Clair Xmas," directed by Marcus Muzopappa. This St. Clair is between Arlington and Carrick, but more specifically, St. Clair Village, a 556-unit public housing project torn down in 2010. Ernie (Mr. Jamal) is mounting a street protest. As a few others gather, they trade tales of growing up. But the story takes a U-turn when Ernie's wife appears, then another when a city detective (Art Terry), and then it twists again.

If anything, the play is overfull, taking too long to get to its true conflict. (Maybe it wants to be a full-length play.) But the cast of seven, which also includes Paul Guggenheimer, Judy Kaplan, Deborah Starling, Charles Timbers and Mont Jones, give it believability and heft.

The best-known playwright in the festival is Tammy Ryan, who contributes "Cornucopia," directed by Ashley Southers. The scene is a Dollar Store on Christmas Eve, where a warmhearted clerk (Laura Hoffman), wonderfully funny guard (Candace Walker) and weary manager (Andy Kirkland) have to deal with a desperate young woman (Aliya Sims). It has the shapeliness, heart and wry wisdom of a story by O'Henry.

Program A will be staged 7 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Program B

Aasiyah El-Rice's "We Need a Ramadan," directed by Vince Ventura, begins with grandparents (old pros Sam Lothard and Mayme Williams) kvetching their way toward Christmas, then gathering their disputatious family to struggle through the contrasting religions of Christianity, Islam and the Steelers. Not quite a play -- more a series of statements of faith.

In Judy Meiksin's "Hanukkah in the Back Country," directed by Kim El, two Jewish sisters -- one a lesbian -- are injured on a backcountry hike. They share tales of love lost before a rescuer shows up to expand the arena of tales. It ends, as you know it will, with a simple ceremony.

Tameka Cage Conley's "Where I First Saw the Light," directed by T.C. Brown, finds two young men (Dionysus Westbrooks and Ben Blazer) on Christmas Eve at the graves of their fathers, who in life were close friends whose lives were intertwined more closely than their sons knew.

The fathers (Jonas Chaney and Barney McKenna) show up as spirits to preach reconciliation, but it isn't that simple.

Veteran playwright Ray Werner contributes the moving "Christmas Star," directed by Monteze Freeland, in which an injured and bitter Iraq veteran (Trevor Butler) returns on Christmas Eve to an embittered anti-war father (Les Howard), himself a Vietnam veteran, and a bewildered mother/wife. The generations clash and their respective medals come into play.

Kim El's "An Ubuntu Holiday," directed by Stephen Santa, is more feel-good essay than a play, per se. A Kwanzaa celebration runs into the suspicious distrust of a Christian, but the two sides share some healing holiday memories. Candace Walker excels in a very different role.

Program B will be staged at 7 tonight, 2 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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