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
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: 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.