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
 
 

REVIEW: Herbert III and Contribution (eta Creative Arts)

A very pleasant flashback

eta-creative-arts-1

   
eta Creative Arts presents
   
Herbert III and Contribution
      
Written by Ted Shine
Directed by
Phyllis E. Griffin
eta Creative Arts, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Whenever I attend a revival of any sort I go in with apprehension and in some cases outright dread. When I saw that eta Creative Arts Foundation was doing a revival of Ted Shine’s work on civil rights issues from the 1960”s I was intrigued. With any revival there is the danger of being not only outdated but characters becoming caricatures, and there is danger of any humor being unintended.

Phyllis E. Griffin is the director of the eta revival of Ted Shine’s Herbert III and Contribution. Ms. Griffin has managed to put a modern perspective on these classic works of African American theatre. These works call for a subtle buildup to the climax but with an economy of time.

Herbert III

In Herbert III, the action takes place in Herbert Jr. and his wife Margarette’s bedroom. Margarette (Tiffany Griffin) wakes up late in the night and discovers that Herbert III has yet to come home. Tiffany Griffin is quite funny as the passive aggressive mother known to every ethnicity. She wants the world for her baby and yet blames Herbert Jr. for making it impossible. She makes panicked calls to the police, hospital, and the morgue. After each call she is grateful to Jesus and breaks into gospel hymns lauding the heavens. Griffin’s body language is perfectly reminiscent of the ‘amen corner’ sisters in churches where getting the spirit involves shouting, dancing, and sometimes passing out.

Antoine Pierre Whitfield plays the role of Herbert Jr. as the embodiment of the middle class everyman. He trusts that his son is okay and out bowling with friends. He wants either peaceful sleep or frisky sex – neither of which is forthcoming. The characters are childhood sweethearts from the 1950’s who got married after a hotel assignation produces the first of three children. Mr. Shine’s comedy reflects the social changes that erupted in the early to mid-sixties, especially in the urban centers of America. Herbert and Margarette’s first- born son fell under the spell of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael’s call to arms for Black men. He is serving a life sentence for killing a bigoted police officer. Their second son is a draft dodger living in Canada for which Herbert Jr. is proud, much to Margarette’s chagrin. Herbert Jr. recalls his tenure in Korea with distaste while his wife calls it an American duty.

Herbert III is what Margarette clings to as her last hope for being a proud mother and saving face for the family. She chides Herbert Jr. for his failures of not making more money and being doomed to manual labor. Believe it or not, it is a comedy.

Their banter is tense and charged with naughtiness. Herbert III is a good warm up for the second one act of the evening – Contribution.

Contribution

Felisha McNeal is the comic centerpiece of Contribution. She dazzles as the foul-mouthed beer-swilling granny who finds a way to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement. The action opens on the day that Mrs. Grace Love’s (McNeal) grandson Eugene is going to be a part of integrating a lunch counter in the South. Jerod Haynes plays Eugene with seriousness and uptight anger, taking his duty of integration as serious business. He doesn’t understand how his grandmother could work for White folks while her people are being beaten and in some cases killed. Ms. McNeal segues seamlessly from comedy to deep anger and grief over lynching and having watched her husband die in an alley after being refused treatment by a doctor that she worked for as a cook. The doctor would later ask ‘Auntie” Grace to comfort him as he laid dying while in horrific pain. Ms. McNeal reflects a wondrous faraway look as she recounts the incident and then on a dime her eyes reflect a devilish glint as she reveals her role in the old doctor’s demise.

Tiffany Griffin also appears in Contribution as a domestic named Katy who is terrified of the White rage simmering at the lunch counter. Ms. Griffin gives a nuanced performance that is a counter to Margarette in Herbert III. Throughout the play Grace is the trickster unbeknownst to her employers and family. The trickster is a central character in African American literature whose lineage goes back to slavery and African deities. The trickster always gets the best of the other characters through use of wit and wiles in spite of being seen as a simpleton or otherwise inferior.

Contribution is one of Ted Shine’s better-known plays and has been given a wonderful revival by eta Creative Arts Foundation. In a discussion after the show, director Phyllis Griffin spoke of the need for these stories to be produced as a reminder of how far we as a society still have to go. The worries of the characters are the same and in some cases the struggles are the same in spite of progress. I would recommend a trip to this little traveled corner of Chicago’s South Side to check out the production.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

eta-creative-arts Herbert III and Contribution run Thursday through Sundays until August 22, 2010 at eta Creative Arts Foundation located at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue. Call 773-752-3955 or www.etacreativearts.org for ticket info. Parking is available at the theatre. (Unfortunately, public transportation and Metra are not easily accessible so try to get a carpool going.)

REVIEW: Fathers and Sons (eta Creative Arts)

A mixed bag at eta’s "Fathers and Sons"

fathers-sons

eta Creative Arts presents:

Fathers and Sons

by Michael Bradford
directed by
Kemati J. Porter
through April 4th (ticket info)

review by K.D. Hopkins

The eta Creative Arts Foundation production of Fathers and Sons takes many directions right out of the gate. The dramaturgy describes the play as ‘a portrait of men moving from dysfunction to wholeness’ and as specific to the African American experience. Unfortunately there was such an attempt to express this in the production that the characters remained more outlines than clearly defined and one of the main characters is more of a ghostly caricature as a result.

fathers-sons The play opens in a well-appointed living room with a telephone ringing though not being answered. The ghost of patriarch Bernard Goodwater (ably played by George Stalling) appears with his gleaming trumpet playing “Salt Peanuts” by Dizzy Gillespie. Mr. Stalling is a veteran of the Chicago theatre scene that I saw back in his Loyola drama school days when I was a student at Mundelein. He still has the same passionate delivery, but more matured and defined. The character as a ghost is written in one dimension by default. Bernard barely breaks the mold of a musician with itching heels and a dismissive attitude towards women. And every time Bernard’s character appears there is a blaring trumpet inserted, signifying the ruminative and destructive history handed down to his son. Stalling plays him with a Cab Calloway flair that gets as grating as the blaring trumpet.

The action moves jarringly to present day when Marcus Goodwater comes home to his wife Yvette, relaying the horrific news that their daughter went missing when Marcus looked away for one minute. Mark H. Howard and Olivia Charles play Marcus and Yvette Goodwater respectively. Their tragedy is another plot line that drives this drama. Tragedy is never simple and when family gets in the mix, the underlying cause usually bubbles to the surface.

Part of the cause is Marcus’ father Leon played by Dale Benton. He comes to town after getting a call from his mother regarding the horrific event. Marcus is suspect of Leon’s motives for coming and greets him with a sneer and a bag of drugs. Leon has a drug problem in addition to diabetes-‘the sugar’- and Marcus has suffered it all before. Dale Benton is definitely the most nuanced actor in this cast. His suffering is palpable at not being welcomed by his son and haunted by the specter of Bernard’s apparition mocking him. He embodies the ignored son with a chip on his shoulder and the resulting monkey on his back.

eta-logo Although the entire cast is talented and has great potential, the problems with Fathers and Sons is its lack of focus. Is this a drama about the war between men or the war in Iraq? Is it about family tragedy revisiting itself with a missing child being the pre-emptive strike against Marcus? The playwright, Michael Bradford, claims that the jazz rhythms of the bebop era are how the stories in the play relate to each other. That would make more sense dramatically if this were in the style of theatre of the absurd or expressionism. The characters are too broadly drawn for either style to gel. Bebop was a wildly improvisational style of music-unpredictable yet linear with a distinct motif. The structure for that is in the writing. According to the president of eta Creative Arts Foundation – Abena Joan Brown – this is a work in progress that will change and as it goes on the audience should see a different play every time they come to see it.

This being said, there is incredible potential in Fathers and Sons and the play should have been worked out more before the premiere or marketed as a work in progress.

Surrounding this production, there is much made regarding the fact that the play is directed by a woman, which is understandable considering the nature of the male character’s attitudes toward women. The characters of Bernard and Leon are stuck in the old fashioned mold of victim when it comes to women. Women are sex sirens who will take your money and cut you to the quick. They are helpless and think that their only salvation is to abandon their families for music, drugs, drink, and more sex. Even the modern day character of Yvette is drawn as the irresistible sex goddess who demands to get married in a dominatrix costume while exploiting Marcus’ foot fetish.

Kemati J. Porter does well with the direction but would serve the drama better by taking a scissors to a good half-hour of superfluous material; introduce the ‘Salt Peanuts’ motif a couple of times and then leave it in Leon’s head for the actor to portray. Mr. Stalling and Mr. Benton have the acting chops for that kind of subtlety.

The play’s set is beautifully dressed and creative with the window structure, though these same structures block some sight lines and could be solved with some simple adjustments.

eta-logo2 eta Creative Arts has been a fixture on the South Side for 39 years. Eta brings invaluable arts education and performances to what otherwise would be ignored by the theatre community. President Abena Joan Brown came out at the end of the play and asked that the audience be truthful and kind in their evaluation and to spread the word. I recommend Fathers and Sons with some reservations. It is my hope that this work will become better defined and further empowers the great artistic and community work of eta Creative Arts Foundation.

 

Rating★★½

 

Fathers and Sons runs Thursday, February 11th through Sunday April 4th 2010. The eta Creative Arts Foundation is located at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue. Call 773-752-3955 for ticket information. Valet Parking is available. Metra and CTA availability is limited.

NOTE: Check out the fabulous art exhibit during intermission from the JP Martin Group Collection. There are some stunning prints available of which the sales help support the theatre.

Arthur Miller Project

 millerproject

 

The Arthur Miller Project – An Exploration

by Paige Listerud

In fall, at the start of the 2009-2010 Season, it became quite apparent that the Chicago theater community was responding to the economic crisis and the shifting political tone of Washington with works that depicted hardship, deprivation, and introspection over the meaning of American identity.

Profiles Theatre produced Neil LaBute’s response to 9/11, The Mercy Seat; Eclipse Theatre brought back the political corruption of the Grant Administration with Romulus Linney’s Democracy; Brain Surgeon Theatre reconstructed a cramped Depression Era tenement with their world premiere 1512 West Studebaker Place; Northlight Theatre will take their turn at the Clifford Odets’ classic Awake and Sing this January; eta Creative Arts Foundation examined the American Dream through African American eyes with Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill; while These Shining Lives, produced by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and The Artistic Home’s production of Lillian Hellman’s Days To Come touched on the dynamics of American labor.

Into the mix, it seemed striking that not just one or two, but seven productions of Arthur Miller’s work emerged on the roster for the 2009-2010-theater season. In a world-class theater city like Chicago, one is accustomed to seeing plenty of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, and even a production of The Crucible each season. But this time, it was clear that something was in the air. True, almost half of the productions are from Eclipse Theatre’s seasonal selection; but to see so much attention by individual theaters devoted to the playwright known for his piercing examination of the American mythos signaled both a return to basics and an interrogation into who we are and where we are going.

Here at ChicagoTheaterBlog, we took this as an excellent opportunity to create dialog about Miller’s work; to ask what still remains vital and provocative about the issues his plays bring up. And, of course, to get more people out to the theater, talking about theater and participating with their theater community. To this end, we’ve embarked on our first videotaped interview, with more to come. Our goal is to interview directors, actors, and scholars regarding the Arthur Miller productions of this season and to give you a chance to respond to our findings. We hope that our coverage of Miller’s works through our “Arthur Miller Project” will prompt you to engage in the exciting exchange that live theater can bring and is so accessible to us in this great city.

Arthur Miller Plays in the Chicago 2009-2010 Theater Season

Aug 31 All My Sons at Timeline Theatre (our review)

Oct 6 Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (our review)

Mar 25 Resurrection Blues at Eclipse Theatre

Mar 27 The Crucible produced by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre (at Raven Theatre)

July 8 After the Fall at Eclipse Theatre

July 24 Incident At Vichy at Redtwist Theatre

Sept 2 A Memory of Two Mondays at Eclipse Theatre


 Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

 

Raven Theatre’s artistic director Michael Menendian, talks with Paige Listerud regarding their critically successful production of Death of a Salesman

Review: Creative Arts Foundation’s “Pill Hill”

Testing the Bonds of Brotherhood in Sam Kelley’s  “Pill Hill”

 "Pill Hill", by Sam Kelley, now playing at eta Creative Arts Foundation

The award winning eta Creative Arts Foundation wraps up its 38th season with a sterling production of Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill, a play that explores the journeys of 6 Chicago steel mill workers trying to realize economic and social success. Director Aaron Todd Douglas has honed his actors into a taut and dynamic ensemble. His direction shines at its best when it contrasts the vital camaraderie that unites these African American men with the unspoken truths, rationalizations, and false aspirations that throw each character into isolation.

Pill Hill is the black upper-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side where these men aspire to live one day as a sign that they have “made it.” As some take their first tentative steps away from the steel mill, others get left behind—Charlie, the senior member of the group, who has worked there since migrating to Chicago from the South and Joe, who cannot bear to turn away from a sure paycheck, even though the mill inexorably grinds him down. Kelley’s play examines the toll that success takes on friendship, while acknowledging that the price of doing nothing is certainly just as high.

There is much to be said about Kelley’s keen eye on friendships between the men of Pill Hill. Most of that dynamic plays out between Joe (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Eddie (Anthony Peeples), in the crucible of their desire for a better life. Much as they both share their dreams of getting out of the mill and onto the Hill, more goes unsaid between them about the limits of their friendship when the stagnation of one strains against the overwhelming success of the other.

Indeed, the whole cast, under Douglas’s watchful direction, construct nuanced relationships between their characters, where what is not said matters as much as what is. Therefore, much is made about Joe’s need to move on from mill work, but silence surrounds his encroaching alcoholism; Scott (Cecil Burroughs) gets to revel in his glory days as a prospective football player, but no one confronts him about his descent into drug sales once his potential truly dries up; the guys remark frequently on Tony’s (Corey Spruill) natural abilities as a salesman, but none question his growing lack of a moral center.

Attention, as well as praise, must be paid to the most riveting monologue of the production, delivered by David Adams, as Charlie. It is critical to the play. It grounds it in the recognition that success can never be as simple to African Americans as it is for whites. Success for African Americans bears the awful burden of reflecting full-fledged personhood and first-class citizenship. Tragically, material success may also dangerously expose a black man as being “too uppity.” Charlie relates the time that Southern police officers pulled him over for the crime of driving his new Cadillac around his old hometown. After they have terrorized and humiliated him in front of his family, Charlie drives back to Chicago and puts the Cadillac up on blocks, not to be driven again, until a new sheriff has taken over, years later. Obviously, having more than white bigots think you deserve can get you into as much trouble as having nothing.

While having it all and having nothing contend most dramatically between Joe and Eddie, it’s the internal struggle between the two that wreaks the most havoc with Eddie’s soul. Eddie is the greatest achiever of the group, breaking the glass ceiling as the first black lawyer of a prestigious Chicago law firm. He becomes the group’s living symbol of promise and hope. But one almost wishes Eddie could be a little less successful, but a little more content, as is dear, henpecked Al (Kevin Hope). Peeple’s Eddie is ready to crack under the burden of it all—the success, the compromise that success demands of him, and especially, the childlike adulation of Joe, who is already so broken, no attempt can be made to hide it. Something has got to give. The showdown between Joe and Eddie is searing and unforgettable.

It is my hope that theatergoers who are familiar with the north side will head south to see this magnificent production. Douglas and cast strike the right balance between playfulness and tension, humor and anger, yearning, helplessness, and hope. While some dialogue may be stilted, Sam Kelley’s work truly ranks with other dramas that critique the American Dream, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Whatever its limits, this play examines something that the previous two works do not. It explores the modern day tests that are put to an African American brotherhood that is, all at once, flawed, endangered, compassionate, and powerful.

Rating:  ««««

Pill Hill runs through August 9th, at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, located at 7558 S Chicago Avenue.  For more info and tickets, call (773) 752-3955.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 P.M.
Sunday at 3:00 P.M. & 7:00 P.M.

 

For more info regarding eta Creative Arts, click on “Read more”

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