Review: Birthright (eta Creative Arts)

  
  

Melodrama drowns out Birthright’s take on personal responsibility

  
  

Birthright by Jackie Alexander - eta Creative Arts

  
eta Creative Arts presents
 
Birthright
 
Written by Jackie Alexander
Directed by Vaun Monroe
at eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago (map)
through May 14  |  tickets: $10-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Birthright is basically an African American melodrama, and Vaun Monroe makes the best choice in directing Jackie Alexander’s play with straightforward, almost elemental simplicity. Onstage at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, the play covers the mystery that surrounds a pastor’s checkered past and its connection to the family and friends he tries to counsel and comfort through their own relationship difficulties and economic hardships. Birthright conveys a distinctly Christian message but it relies on a melodramatic framework to make its points. While certainly an interesting vehicle to engage audiences on basic themes of personal responsibility, the play still yields to its melodramatic foundation and many of the show’s performances only serve to further flatten each character.

Etienne (Dion Strowhorn, Sr.) is an impassioned black pastor determined to make Scripture relevant and accessible to his modern flock. He, himself, works both day and night shifts at the factory and struggles with his enduring wife Juanita (Kona N. Burks) over whether they should mortgage their house to support their church. Etienne’s younger brother, Billy (Eric Walker), faces even tougher struggles over maintaining his dignity while suffering unemployment in post-Katrina Louisiana. When Billy attacks his girlfriend Monique (Toya Turner) during a fight over finances, Monique’s sister Michele (Christina Harper) pulls a gun on him and Etienne gets involved not just to set Billy right, but also look out for Michele’s welfare.

Etienne’s intense interest in Michele opens a whole can of worms concerning its appropriateness. Michele, having suffered sexual abuse from her and Monique’s father, Sonny, when they were girls, jumps to the conclusion that Etienne’s interest in her is sexual. Much as Harper strives to humanize Michele, she still comes across as the clichéd troubled bad girl of the plot, out to stir up more shit than she can handle. Her role, more than the others, seems to suffer the worst two-dimensionality. Other characters seem to get a reprieve from stereotype at least at some point in the play, but Michele goes down in the end without the power to redeem or broaden one facet of her troubled personality.

Overall, most conversations between characters come off flatly and give the whole production a community theater feeling. Certainly, it’s refreshing to see the patient and longsuffering Juanita get her licks in with Etienne upon learning he’s given Michele exorbitant amounts of money. The scene wherein the pastor reveals his secret also packs a punch, while Billy’s reconciliation with Monique comes off honestly and powerfully. Alexander definitely makes a Christian perspective on personal responsibility accessible and humanizing with this play. But greater emphasis on bringing out more emotionally nuanced exchanges between characters would enliven Birthright from start to finish, far beyond its melodramatic foundation. That would put the flesh on the show’s bones and bring its message across more vividly.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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