Friday, January 31, 2014

Pit and Balcony's "A Raisin in the Sun" a play not to miss on every level

From left, Elise Williams, Marcia Reeves and Sandra Crosby Robinson

review and photographs by janet i. martineau

It is difficult to know where to begin in reviewing Pit and Balcony Community Theatre's production of Lorraine Hansberry's ground-breaking "A Raisin in the Sun."

And a minefield too since comments can be misconstrued, because it is the story of a poor 1950s BLACK family living in Chicago, written by a BLACK woman, and this reviewer is WHITE.

Difficult where to begin because everything about it is so excellent ....its deeply human storyline, its direction, its cast, its attention to detail in the set, costumes and props, its Americanness. So where to start, all those things being equal.

And a minefield....well, guess I will plunge in there first. This is a play that, to white folk who have never seen it, might open some eyes and touch some hearts about the African-American experience while at the same time screaming out that we really are all kindred spirits in life.

I attended the final dress rehearsal with a dozen or so people from the First Ward Community Center, which serves our black population. They were of all ages. And as the play progressed, it was touching to realize this story was clicking with them on all cylinders. They were glued to it. Their responses to certain moments were telling.

Yet, were not my responses the same, as a person who was a youngster in the period it depicts. Was I too not glued to it. Was it not clicking on all cylinders with me, my family having struggled with some of the same issues.

Raheem Saltmarshall and Bryson Willis
Hansberry wrote a gem back there in 1959, one which remains as relevant as ever; maybe even more so in our troubled time of job losses, low paying jobs and increasing poverty. 

And a gem which also so eloquently captures American black history at a pivotal period. (We are being as vague as possible about the storyline because watching it unfold is part of its impact.)

Enter in Linda Bush Rebney's direction of it for Pit....of casting a cast with limited or no acting credits and hitting a home run. Perhaps it stems from her 40 productions as a high school theater and language arts teacher; of talking raw talent and delivering with it.

Whatever it is, go see this play. GO SEE THIS PLAY!

Its 11-member cast is powered by four outstanding performances -- Raheem Saltmarshall and Marcia Reeves as a married couple with Elise Williams as the husband's sister and Sandra Crosby Robinson as his mother. All of them living in the same dwelling in Chicago's south side. With a $10,000 inheritance check looming as a life changer.

These four grab viewers by the throat from their opening scenes and then just keep tightening the squeeze....he angry and tense and unhappy with his plight in life, his wife stoic and gentle and pregnant again, his sister a rebel and headed to college to be a doctor and experimenting with what it means to be of African heritage, and Mom strict and knowing and tired.

Their faces and movements accent their spoken words, consistently (especially Reeves). Their quiet moments are more telling than their explosions. They ARE their characters, and we connect to every one of them because of it.

And the rest of the cast provides strong support: Ahmad Foster and DnZell Teague as two of the sister's suitors, Bryson Willis as the couple's 11-year-old son, Demichael Ezell as the father's business partner, and Michael Curtis as the white neighborhood spokesman sent to try and convince this family not to move in (an occurrence taken from Hansberry's family history).

Which leaves the attention to detail from Suzie Reid's scenic design and set dressing to the props, costume and hair crews. The place reeks of 1950s and a substandard dwelling. 

The cockroach exterminator, kitchen items, sprinkling clothes with a water bottle before ironing them, saddle shoes, hair curlers, radios and record players, cracks in the walls, Afros, pictures taken down from the walls leaving a reminder they were there.

Icing on the cake to a dynamite script and direction of it.

For more pictures:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Midland's "Wait Until Dark" struggles with suspense element

review by janet i. Martineau


That's the sound emanating from the Midland Center for the Arts stage floor during performances of the play "Wait Until Dark."

It's part of the action in this suspense drama that finds a blind woman outwitting a trio of bad guys in the darkness of her apartment.

Sadly, that word also applies to the script as well and this production of it.

Dating back to the 1960s, "Wait Until Dark" is today horribly dated with its requirement and suspenseful use of rotary phones, telephone booths and photo darkrooms. It also doesn't help that because of the Audrey Hepburn movie version and the fact that every community theater known to mankind stages it, there is no suspense left unless somehow the director and cast creates a sense of yes, we know what happens next. but our stomachs are churning anyway.

Director Peter Brooks does not do that, unfortunately. Nor does the male trio in his cast. For most of the night the play moves slower than molasses during a polar vortex. Nearly two hours of plodding results in a mere five minutes or so of ACTION.

And, to be honest, the more we see the show  the more holes in its script surface.

That said, there is something to cheer about in this Center Stage Theatre production that concludes its two-weekend run Friday through Sunday (Jan. 24-26) -- the performance of Trena Winans-Bagnall as the blind woman trying to figure out who is good and who is bad and what she needs to do to survive.

Winans-Bagnall has become one of Midland's most durable and dependable actors over the years, be it musical theater or dramatic. And she is terrific in this role. Kept a hawk eye on her, and not once did she give a hint she could see what was before her. She takes one heck of a hard fall at one point, and carefully navigates in the apartment by feeling her way with her hands. Nice performance, with tension provided that transfers to the audience.

Nice job too by Taylor Winslow as the young neighbor who helps the blind woman with everyday chores...and eventually outwitting the bad guys. One minute she is a bratty teen we want to smack and the next an excited kid who really doesn't comprehend the dangers ensuing.

Which leaves us to the guys....Kevin Kendrick as the No. 1 bad guy and Zachary Prout and Chris Krause as his assistants. They are in a nutshell not sinister enough. They are not directed into a performance that chills, that feels dangerous, that makes us queasy even though we know what happens, that permeates the theater.

Fine line because we don't want them over the top either with twirling mustaches. But we need more. Prout also displays a jittery/tremor special effect throughout that we surmise may have meant to display inner rage and danger but comes across more as nervous.

Might have helped too if the play was directed at a faster pace.

And so it goes.