REVIEW: Fathers and Sons (eta Creative Arts)

A mixed bag at eta’s "Fathers and 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.




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.