Just before the curtain goes up on each of Black Theatre Troupe's productions, executive director David J. Hemphill makes a gracious speech in which he thanks the company's subscribers and supporters. Hemphill always ends his speech by saying, "If you enjoy the show tonight, tell all your friends. If you don't enjoy it, don't tell anyone."
I'd like to honor Hemphill's request, in good part because that would mean I hadn't witnessed the wretched evening of theater that is this company's newest production. Unfortunately, I can't do that. At 90 minutes, bIRTH would have been just another lousy play. At three hours, it's an unforgivable transgression; an epic of wasted time and talent that I'm still trying to forget.
bIRTH is billed as a comedy but is never funny; it struggles to deliver a message about love but ends up only convincing us that there's nothing amusing about the sex lives of old people. The other purpose that bIRTH serves -- besides wasting its audience's time -- is to prove that playwright Bless ji Jaja should find another line of work.
In all fairness, I should mention that the audience with whom I witnessed this witless program screamed themselves hoarse with laughter. My ears are still ringing. Everyone around me appeared absolutely delighted with this overwritten, underacted story about Olive and Fred, who have just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary (or maybe it's their 45th; the actors, on the night I saw the show, used these numbers interchangeably). The couple is having sex problems: She wants to do it all the time and he would rather nap. She yammers endlessly about her favorite fantasies -- most of them involving a pizza and a feather boa -- and he deflects her demands with zany antics that are meant to be funny but are really only annoying. While Olive is trying to get laid, her neighbors, Jonas and Selah, are getting divorced. Seems Jonas has met a white woman and is leaving Selah and moving away to be with his new friend.
Who can blame him? When they're not being boring, ji Jaja's characters are just plain contemptible: They insult Jews and white people; spout streams of hugely unfunny "dirty" jokes ("Why do men get smarter during sex? Because they're plugged into a genius!"); and invite strangers to their home in order to belittle them. What this nonsense has to do with being black is anyone's guess. How it got selected by the usually more discerning Black Theatre Troupe is another mystery.
I spent less time laughing than squirming as old men discussed erectile dysfunction or stumbled through the physical comedy that passes for humor here. We're meant to be amused by the notion that old people can be wicked, but there's nothing funny about a stout sexagenarian flashing her husband or practicing the proper way to say the word "motherfucker." This nonsense reaches its nadir with a scene in which one of the men demonstrates his preferred lovemaking techniques by humping a pillow. Oh, ha ha ha! Hee hee! How naughty!
It doesn't help matters that, in this production, half the actors can't remember their lines. Director Ben Tyler was apparently so busy choreographing the relentless bumping and grinding of these cantankerous chatterboxes that he neglected two important bits of direction: Memorize your lines. And don't stare out into the audience while you're waiting for your next cue.
Mike Traylor and Helen Hayes give nice performances that are completely wasted, as is nearly every minute of Act Two, which is given over to determining whether Fred is bored with sex or just turned off by his wife's fantasy games. Ultimately, you won't care. Skip bIRTH; stay home and watch reruns of The Jeffersons instead. You'll hear the same screaming and yelling, but it'll be free and you won't have to listen to old people talk about intercourse. Where watching bIRTH is concerned, only the audience gets screwed.
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