Theater: Double bravura

Openings of A.C.T.'s 'Let There Be Love' and Berkeley Rep's 'Head of Passes' provide opportunity to compare theatrical approaches

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Cheryl Lynn Bruce as Shelah (L) and Nikkole Salter as Cookie (R) perform in Tarell Alvin McCraney's 'Head of Passes' at the Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

by Charles Brousse

Like rare night sky conjunctions of the solar system’s major planets, it doesn’t happen very often that our region’s “flagship” theaters—San Francisco’s A.C.T. and the East Bay’s Berkeley Rep—open new productions within a couple of days of each other. This, however, is precisely what occurred last week, and the event provides a welcome opportunity to compare approaches to a pair of contemporary plays that open windows on black family culture in white-dominated countries thousands of miles apart. Both feature bravura performances by the lead characters that may, or may not, outweigh some serious script problems, depending on the limits of your sentimentality quotient.

Let There Be Love (A.C.T.): Alfred, a West Indian immigrant living in suburban London (superbly played by Bay Area actor Carl Lumbly), has little to be happy about in this recent drama by British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, directed by Maria Mileaf. Alfred’s woes include being deserted by his wife, forced out of his eldest daughter’s home after she marries a “proper” English gentleman and scandalized by his younger daughter Gemma (a solid performance by Donnetta Lavinia Grays) when she exits the lesbian closet. Nor are his complaints limited to family. More recent immigrants, especially those from South Asia and Eastern Europe, are denounced for their slovenly ways and questionable work ethics. Government services are failing. Everywhere Alfred looks, society seems to be coming apart. To top it off, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, he has been given a month to live.

Then, just as the gloom threatens to crush Alfred’s spirit, temporary salvation arrives in the form of a healthcare worker named Maria (Greta Wohlrabe), sent by Gemma when it becomes clear that father and daughter can’t stand each other. Although she’s young, attractive and physically vibrant, his first instinct is to send her away. Gradually, however, she becomes the catalyst for one of the fastest transformations since Scrooge heeded the advice of Marley’s ghost and did a moral reversal in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Does the fine acting overcome the feel-good ending and carry the production? That I leave for you to decide.

Head of Passes (Berkeley Rep): Whereas A.C.T. gives us a tiny play (three characters) in a huge space, the Rep offers the opposite: Tarell Alvin McCraney’s sprawling nine-character portrait of a dysfunctional African-American family is compressed by director Tina Landau within the far more modest confines of the company’s Thrust Stage. The Lousiana swamp house set design by G.W. Skip Mercier is impressive. Everyone has a relationship problem (or two) and dark intrigues are suggested. Discourse is both loud and contentious. A lot happens (including multiple deaths) that may be suitable for a Greek tragedy, but a bit too much for such a slim narrative. After two hours, it ends with a bang. Literally. But I won’t go into that.

McCraney builds his story around Shelah, the family matriarch, who is played with tremendous power by Chicago actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who originated the role. It was Shelah who, years before, purchased the property in the bayous with her husband and ran it as a guest house. Now, years later, the nearby rivers have changed course, threatening to bring floodwaters to her doorstep. What to do? Family and employees all have their suggestions, many of them self-serving, but the decision is ultimately hers to make. At the same time, she must cope with a life-threatening disease—visible to her in the form of a mysterious Angel of Death (Sullivan Jones). As the destructive forces close in, she expresses her crisis of faith in a 20-minute, gut-wrenching monologue that, as far as I know, has no parallels in modern American theater. Is this overwritten melodrama, or brilliant playwriting? You pay your money and make your choice.

Charles Brousse can be reached at cbrousse@att.net.

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