March 11, 2004

Ambition Pays Off

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After being labeled “the most ambitious play we’ve ever done,” by Artistic Director Rachel Lampert, Pecan Tan was clearly going to be in the spotlight and under the magnifying glass of the Kitchen Theatre’s inquisitive audience. After an opening weekend of close inspection, most of the reports should read the same: A contemporary comedy with a timeless theme, a talented cast, and a playwright to watch for in the future.

Darrell Jerome (played by established television and film actor, Harlin C. Kearsley) is a man with many imperfections. After finding out he has a long-lost 20 year-old daughter, he faces the challenge of putting his past behind him and becoming a family man. Living with his gun-wielding wife (angered by the news of a daughter she didn’t birth), her mother, his free-spirited brother-in-law Jimmy, and awaiting the arrival of his daughter, the stage is set for a soul-searching family reunion, with Darrell in the middle of it all.

The sudden and complicated changes that are dictated by the unexpected news of parenthood are played out in both the inner and inter-personal conflict of Darrell and his wife, Thelma (Ronica V. Reddick). Darrell’s image of his future-self momentarily brings Thelma closer to her husband as she sees the acceptance of responsibility making its way into his life for the first time. But as Darrell lapses into his erratic inner-child we see the humor in their family dynamics, as Thelma irrationally counteracts by stooping to his level. Giving advice to the couple from opposite ends of the experience-spectrum are young-but-well-traveled Jimmy (Albert Christmas) and the superbly performed Mrs. Davis (Kaci M. Fannin) — the quintessential portrait of what Bernie Mac would call “Big Mama,” equipped with a padded-out booty — neck deep in the ways of old.

Barfield’s writing of Mrs. Davis is magical in that it sounds as if she has quoted a real-life Mrs. Davis verbatim. The absolute reality of Fannin’s performance provides the play’s best laughs because of the intrinsic humor of such a woman’s view on the world. Even if I hadn’t seen Barfield mouthing most of Fannin’s lines with a wide and proud grin from the side of the stage, it still would have been completely clear to me that the playwright knows and loves many women like Mrs. Davis. The play blooms with Barfield’s acknowledgement that the consciously biased opinion of the “Big Mama” character on other people’s affairs is a cultural gem, and, as a result, a candidly hilarious method of storytelling.

When Darrell’s daughter (Crystal M. Walker) finally arrives at the home in South Carolina, the play begins to explore the importance and meaning of family. The expectations of both parties (family and newcomer) are broken. The daughter, the product of cross-racial parents, has a lighter complexion than the rest of the family; her name, Olga, further makes the family question her belonging; and lastly, she is disappointingly “unfeminine” in appearance. When the family exclaims they expected more of a girly-girl, Olga hits back saying she was expecting a traditional family setting and not the cyclone of conflict apparent upon her arrival.

Barfield’s script again plays on the humor of stereotypes as the family asks if Olga would like them to sing and dance for her, while Mrs. Davis begins an onslaught of “proper black names” via a Freudian-slip-like acknowledgement of “Ogaga” (Olga). The family then proposes a list of alternate names to Olga that could out-do the list of girls mentioned in Petey Pablo’s “Freak-a-leak” (Sharisha, Shalonda, et al).

But amidst the arguing and the laughter it creates, Barfield and Director Lenora Pace explore the meaning of family. An ironic twist in the plot (that Darrell may not actually be the father), coupled with the mere conflict caused by Olga’s differing appearance, poses the question: is the concept of family a matter of blood or love? Darrell spends most of the play in love with the thought of having a daughter without ever knowing her, but when his high hopes are not met the unconditional nature of the parent-child bond is left in question. Olga, on the other hand, wishes Darrell to keep the present she had intended to give her father, even when it seems Darrell is not him.

The play also displays the peculiar nature of forced situations. Just as relationships are almost unavoidably formed in uncontrollable instances, such as the New York blackouts, here the family is made to deal with Olga — and Olga with the family — as a hurricane keeps them all in the confines of the house, making them face what they would otherwise turn away from.

Barfield was a student of acclaimed comedy playwright, Christopher Durang, in the Juilliard Playwrighting Program. Although Barfield would not consider herself primarily a comedy writer, the potential success of this play may show that this comic side may turn some heads as her career grows. “After reading the script, my father told me he didn’t know I could be so funny,” said Barfield. Though this may be a humble beginning, what better place for her to next receive Durang-like levels of laughter than good old Ithaca — well, what better place for us, at least?

Pecan Tan plays Thursday through Sunday until March 27. For tickets, call 1-800-28-ITHACA

Archived article by Tom Britton