A long and valiant run is coming to an end. The Kuntu Repertory Theatre, founded by Vernell Lillie in 1975, officially closes its door Saturday after the final performance of its final mainstage show, a reprise of "Good Black Don't Crack" by Kuntu's favorite writer, the late Rob Penny (1941-2003).
This finale was a short two-week run. So you have but two chances left to see one of the prolific Penny's best plays, a sympathetic, pungent portrait of a middle-aged woman with three children navigating the shoals of employment, single-parenting and love. I hesitate to call Penny a feminist, because that sounds like a specific ideology, but his play, written in the mid-'70s, is precocious about the problems of women, not to mention eloquent about a specific community, the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
If that reminds you of August Wilson, it should: Penny, who came to playwriting when the slightly younger man still thought himself a poet, was an important mentor. His three dozen plays never received the national visibility of Wilson's, but they did get widely staged, and they were the backbone of Kuntu's recurring repertory.
"Good Black" dramatizes the toil and trouble -- but also optimism and joy -- of Dalejean, a woman in her 40s played with earthy feeling by Linda Hunt. She has three children (Alyse Hogan, Adonis Whitner and TeonaRingold), and although they give her trouble, it's hardly insuperable. She has more trouble with her new lover, Rip (Birl McCord), who's younger than she and may not be entirely faithful. And she has the most trouble of all with her employer, Jake (Benjamin Blakey), owner of the diner where she works -- think of the legendary Eddie's as a model -- and just won't take no for an answer.
The action takes place in three locations: Dalejean's home, Rip's, and the diner, arranged on the small Homewood Library stage by Kenneth Ellis. Penny spreads the action out over 20-some scenes, and the transitions between them are sometimes awkward. But some scenes are brief and silent, action speaking as loud as words, creating a kind of cinematic flow.
By far the best of it is the dialogue, which can rise to the sexually pungent as the men put their moves on Dalejean and she gives as good as she gets. There is also a thick texture of street aphorism: "I tells it like I see it in my heart," "you old man with your baggy pants, smelling of wet wood," "I could wring water dry," "40 miles of ugliness," "if it ain't messy, don't mess with it."
Penny could write. As a playwright, he's sometimes more of a poet (as was Wilson). It's good to hear his work with this hard-working community theater cast.
They handled an extra challenge at the senior citizen matinee I attended. One cast member couldn't get out of work, so they deftly re-wrote around him. And let me tell you, the women in that audience provided lively responses during the talk-back that follows every Kuntu show.
That has followed, I should say, since this is the end of the line -- at least for now. Ms. Lillie is retiring, but who knows what might happen some day? Kuntu has many alumni who aren't going to want to see it disappear.
In the meantime, I intend to be there at the end of Saturday's show to join the final ovation.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.