Stage review: 'Ma Noah' adeptly tackles tough issues

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A play about a contemporary black woman struggling to bring her four children through the storms of young adulthood, "Ma Noah" earns the biblical weight of its title. Rebecca is commanding a fragile ark. That there's no Pa Noah on deck makes it harder, and the rising flood of drugs and related ills is such that not everyone may survive.

And yet Mark Clayton Southers' play is also robustly funny. This mix of comedy and drama, sometimes approaching the heights of melodrama, along with its family setting and biblical parallels, suggests what are often called "chitlin' circuit" entertainments. But "Ma Noah" doesn't pander to the audience: It has a stern purpose beneath its willingness to please.

'Ma Noah'

Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, Cultural District, 937 Liberty Ave., third floor.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $15-$25; or 412-377-7803.

Ma's four children range from the oldest, Pig (whose real name is the biblical Ham), who's out in the world, fighting addiction and the temptations of illegal money, to the youngest, Francine, working at Taco Bell but attracted to the rewards of pole dancing. In between are Larry, a drug dealer in the making, and Mary, pregnant (as her name suggests, but by whom? -- as her name also suggests). She's come home to have a possibly fatherless child.

So there are plenty of demons for Ma to fight during a crucial month in the life of her family. She has little in the way of financial resources, but she has plenty of integrity, determination and especially guile.

Some of her stratagems may be unnecessarily roundabout, but they provide fun, when fun is wanted. Some plot details leave me confused, like just what Ma actually does, as opposed to what she scares her kids into thinking she might. It gets worse before it gets better, but in the end, Ma knows what needs to be done.

One of Mr. Southers' strengths is verbal, channeling believable community concerns and talk into revelatory rants, especially for the lively Larry, who takes off on "Oreos," the N-word, crackers, the hidden code of Social Security numbers and other insights and obsessions.

Presumably the play takes place at least a decade back. That's when "Ma Noah" had its 2004 Pittsburgh premiere, by New Horizon Theater Inc. at the Kelly-Strayhorn in East Liberty. This new staging benefits from the intimacy of Pittsburgh Playwrights' small theater in the Cultural District and a fine compact set by Diane Melchitzky.

It also benefits from clear, forceful direction by Tracey Turner, and in introducing some young talent. The four younger actors are not as well known as the charismatic Chrystal Bates, who plays Ma. She is the play's tentpole and dynamo, to mix metaphors as Ma would be happy to do, and she carries off the range from grief to fury to good humor with ease.

Playing Francine and Larry are Heaven Bobo and DeVaughn Robinson, who came to attention two years ago as winners in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Ms. Bobo is going on to study theater at UCLA in the fall. Mr. Robinson, who won that August Wilson contest as a high school freshman and went on to place third nationally, was also a winner in this year's Shakespeare Monologue Contest, playing Hamlet; he's a playwright, as well.

Playing Mary is Cheryl Bates-White. She's Chrystal Bates' daughter and has shown it in a number of local productions. Trevor Butler, who plays Pig, is a Point Park freshman, new to Pittsburgh theater but already making his mark.

There are lots of creative connections here, starting with August Wilson's having inspired Mr. Southers to write plays when he was a steelworker. Now, as both playwright and theater entrepreneur, he's giving a new generation chances to discover its own art.


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


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