Black & White theater fest's plays vary in quality
Barbara Russell, left, Tom Merit and Claire Fraley are in "I'll Get You Later" at Theatre Festival in Black & White at Pittsburgh Playwrights.
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Faced with eight short plays, it's natural to pick favorites. But the pleasure of the seventh annual Theatre Festival in Black & White at Pittsburgh Playwrights is variety. These are simple black box productions, and the acting and playwriting varies, but each play offers something to enjoy.
As curated by artistic director Mark Clayton Southers and coordinator Ja'Sonta Roberts Deen, the festival presents plays half by black playwrights with white directors and half vice versa. The characters and actors are black, white or whatever else as each story requires. The goal, to get black and white theater artists to work together, and audiences, too, recommends it as one of Pittsburgh's distinctive theater events.
The eight plays are divided into two programs, one about an hour and three-quarters long, the other about two and a quarter. I'd be happy to steer you to the better, but there really isn't a strong argument either way. So I'll take them up as I happened to see them.
The festival's biggest name is August Wilson. His "The Janitor," directed by Randy Kovitz, is a brief piece in which a hotel employee pauses in sweeping the empty stage of a "National Conference on Youth" to take the podium to address an imagined audience. (The location is the Edison Hotel, a nice joke, given the reputation of the Edison in Pittsburgh and Mr. Wilson's regular stays at the Edison in New York.) The Janitor, played with grizzled assurance by Kevin Brown, tells the imagined young delegates "not to spend [their] sweetness too fast," until he's ironically terminated by a white boss who walks brusquely past.
Brief as this is, it is more accomplished than the second play, Jann Kwasneski's "I'll Get You Later," directed by Leslie 2X Smith. The adult son of Mrs. Jeffries (Barbara Russell, who stepped in to play the role at the last minute) has committed suicide, and while waiting for post-funeral guests to arrive, she rejects the clumsy comforts of her minister, with whom she once had an affair. There's lots more guilty history to recall, and you gradually realize the servant (Claire Fraley) has something to do with all this. Ms. Fraley's acting is as unsubtle as the awkward exposition -- we're told too much, but we don't know enough.
Kim El's "The Sunday God Gave Me," directed by Andrew Huntley, is an affecting short in which grieving, traumatized Kayla (Camille Lowman), bearing visible evidence of brutal spousal abuse, is comforted by her bubbly, brassy friend (Safiya Hodari). The story turns out to be more tragic than is first apparent. I don't understand the friend's calm response to the evidence of abuse, but I admire the contrasting characterizations. The frame effect of a Griot storyteller contributes little.
John Carosella is an accomplished playwright whose "A Life's Work," directed by Tracey Turner, is a skillful picture of a family being forced out of its house by urban renewal. It could well be the Lower Hill in the 1950s, but this is an Irish-American family at the Point in the 1940s -- an interesting parallel in the context of this festival. The play has more character than plot, presenting rich opportunities especially for the father, played with burly, bewildered anger by Bill Crean.
Robert Isenberg's "Enough Rope," directed by Bill Nunn, is a clever portrait of the relationship between two sisters, one of whom (Christina Farrell) we meet suspended on a rope in mid-air. They are exploring a deep cave, but the sister above, just a voice-over (literally), used too short a rope. Will she pull her sister up or toss her the longer rope? Lots of sibling anger comes out as the play teeters between comedy and fear. I'd say the message is not to argue so frankly with anyone when she has you suspended in a dark abyss.
One of the most ambitious plays, unshaped but full of heart, is "The Powder Room" by Charmaine Page, directed by Melissa Hill Grande. At a bus stop, Gladyce (Cheryl El-Walker), who offers counsel while supervising the powder room in a fancy restaurant, befriends the homeless Helena (Teri Bridgett). At the restaurant Helena meets a lively young waitress (Tonita Davidson) who plays an important role in her redemption. Additional kudos to the imperious waiter of Lonzo Green.
My favorite play is Andrew Ade's crisp "Language Barrier," directed by Ms. Deen, partly because it deals with academic politics, which I know pretty well. Office mates Heather (Tara Lyn Zynel) and Libby (Justine Patrick) are ambitious grad student language teachers. Far more interested in their own careers than in the hapless student (Cassidy Adkins) who comes to them for help, they talk with brainy vigor about many things, until they run into a giant difference of opinion on abortion, which opens up their competition in other areas. This is the most cleverly written, tightly acted of the eight offerings -- it's the closest thing to a complete short play and all three actors make their characters real.
Except, perhaps, for the last, Wali Jamal's "Doo Rag," directed by Vince Ventura. Two contrasting brothers (Johnathan Home and Larry Scott) are being interrogated by a capable cop (David Conley) over the death of a young woman (Shaun Nicole) whom they both had been seeing. Enter their ostentatiously religious and self-justifying mother (Mayme Williams, in a role she can sink her teeth into), and the play turns into a battle between her and the cop. The outcome may not be a surprise, but there is plenty of drama along the way.
First Published October 22, 2010 12:00 am