Playwrights have to make several decisions in the course of their work (unless they're lucky enough to be able to make great drama flying by the seats of their pants). One of the trickiest chores is what to do with your Big Idea, if you know what it is at the outset. Are you okay with the seams showing, or would you prefer to lure the audience in with art and entertainment and implant the message when they least suspect it?
I always prefer to have the latter done to me. I also think it's a lot more difficult -- but stubborn people who are hard to distract also tend to be put off by obvious messages, so it's worth the trouble.
Acclaimed poet, novelist, dramatist, activist, and educator Pearl Cleage seems to be doing the first thing but is actually doing the second thing in A Song for Coretta, Black Theater Troupe's current production. There are dangers inherent in the switcheroo, including that viewers will get lost before the larger message kicks in. However, memorable performances help pick up the slack.
The entire cast is quite good. Director Mike Traylor has them interacting (and not interacting, when appropriate) smoothly and believably, keeping things visually interesting in a setting that, although nicely realized by designer Thom Gilseth, is a confining challenge: the end of the long line of mourners waiting outside the church where Coretta Scott King's body lay on February 6, 2006.
I was particularly taken by Grand Canyon University student Jasmine Richardson as high-school girl Keisha "Little Bit" Cameron. Richardson fully invests herself in a young woman who makes a questionable first impression but has as much going on underneath, and as much to offer, as anyone else in the human family.
The five characters listed in the program don't know each other before they meet onstage, which should make exposition much easier, but Cleage still makes one of them a journalist with a tape recorder who wants to interview the others. Still, the device is integrated fairly well and becomes an important plot point, avoiding blatant deus ex machination.
There's a sixth woman: a singing, panhandling bag lady who appears at the beginning of the show and never comes back. She disrupted the mood that actress Charlotte Strayhorne had painstakingly created by sitting on the stage for the entire time the house was open, patiently alternating focus from the stormy sky to her purple umbrella to her pocket New Testament. This fleeting character is supposed to accomplish something, I'm sure, but it was badly executed -- it felt heavy-handed and overly symbolic, in addition to setting up an expectation that she might return.
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Despite everyone's talent and effort, the 90-minute script is somewhat draggy and contrived. If you move the historic moment to the back of your mind and just listen to the characters, though, you'll stay engaged, and the real message will do its sneaky work on you. And it's a complex and inspiring one, about both the black community and the entire American community, about sharing our hearts and having one another's backs, about how the strongest people might be the ones who seems the most carefree, frightened, or beaten-down.
A Song for Coretta continues through Sunday, January 22, at Playhouse on the Park in the lobby of the Viad Building, 1805 North Central Avenue. Tickets are $33.50, with a discount available for Saturday's matinee; order here or call 602-254-2151, extension 4.