Stories About the Old Days: Despite Its Sweet Moments, Black Theatre Troupe's Show Fails to Move Us

In Bill Harris' Stories About the Old Days, an elderly man and woman stand in an old church and recount their lives. They bemoan the passing of time and the ways in which the world has changed and slowly reveal to us the reasons they're the broken people they've become. In Black Theatre Troupe's flawed production, we care less about these two than we're meant to, even while we're marveling at the sweet moments in the performances.

Clayborn is a former blues singer who's working as a janitor in a Detroit church that he's sworn he'll never step foot outside of after the death of his closest friend. Enter Ivy, a soloist in the church's choir who's come to pray and stumbles on Clayborn, singing the blues on the altar. They pester one another into revealing the reasons for their deep pain — hers involving personal loss, his about the loss of faith.

The play, a one-act, is overlong and considers themes we've visited before in more compelling dramas. A pointless checkers game is under-directed by David Hemphill, who otherwise keeps a firm hand on this slight story. Rod Ambrose's Clayborn, a frenetic mess of nerves and comic recollections, often rises above Harris' soliloquies. The scene in which he rails against the young white singers who have stolen and "bleached" the blues he once sang is the evening's sweet spot, and makes up for the fact that, at the performance I attended, the actor often forgot his lines. (To be fair, Ambrose may have been distracted by the ceaseless whining and chatter of the small child in the fourth row or the two cell phones that went off during the performance. Why do people bring 4-year-olds to the theater? What's so confounding about the pre-curtain speech requesting that audience members turn off their phones? These are the mysteries of live theater.)

DeAngelus Grisby is too young to play Ivy. Her gray plastic wig isn't enough to convince us that she could possibly live in the nursing home she carps about. Her character's arc is equally unconvincing. She's intractable and unforthcoming right up until the final scene, and when she finally spills her secrets, we no longer care. Still, when Grisby sings a stanza of "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior," and when she loosens up in the fourth and final scene, she's a force to be reckoned with. Would that she and her co-star had more to work with in Harris's small and frequently preachy short story.