Monday, April 1, 2013

Peacock Tract: "Contribution" and "Happy Ending"

There's a new community theatre on the West Side of Montgomery. The Peacock Tract Cultural Arts Alliance, in cooperation with the Pure Artistry Literary Cafe and Helping Our People Excel [H.O.P.E.], have mounted their first theatrical production at 142 West Jeff Davis Avenue -- two one-act satirical comedies from the 1960s' African American repertoire: Ted Shine's Contribution and Douglas Turner Ward's Happy Ending.

This fledgling organization has a lot going for it: a committed group of talented individuals, experienced theatre veterans, and a desire to make a difference in the local community. And they have chosen these two plays for both their entertainment value and their social consciousness with themes that still resonate today.

Bill Ford and Jay Crawford have designed a unit kitchen set that serves both plays with a minimal amount of cosmetic changes of furniture and set-dressings, and affords ample playing space on the small stage.

Shine's Contributions, directed by Ronald McCall, takes us back to the early days of "sit-in" demonstrations in Greensboro, NC when students from North Carolina A&T (The Greensboro Four) sat peacefully at Woolworth's lunch counter in an attempt to be served, leading to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], and preceding the Freedom Rides and the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] -- a pivotal action in the Civil Rights Movement. --- In the play, Mrs. Love [Cynthia Ashley] tries to put her grandson Eugene [Dre "Pro Status" Wingate] at ease as he gets ready to participate in a sit-in. As she prepares her sought-after cornbread for the local white Sheriff, neighbor Katie [Jessica Renee Carpenter] warns of potential trouble on the streets where a lot of "mean white folks" are just waiting for something to happen. Eugene resents his grandmother's constant Gospel singing and perceived "Uncle Tom, grin-and-shuffle" attitude, but she tells him "You'd be surprised at my contributions" to the movement over many years. With several twists, and at the risk of spoiling the outcome, let it just be said that Mrs. Love is a kind of avenging angel. In Ms. Ashley's capable hands, she becomes a force to contend with, though a bit more attention could be paid to her softer side; the public face she shows, if a bit sweeter, would make the grandness of her design even more shocking than it is here. Both Ms. Carpenter and Mr. Wingate are natural and convincing in their roles, making the most of the comic implications of the script.

Ward's award-winning Happy Ending, when he was Artistic Director of the Negro Ensemble Company, is lighter in tone, and directed by Yvette Jones-Smedley [who also plays one of its characters]. In it, sisters Ellie [Ms. Jones-Smedley] and Vi [Jacqueline Allen Trimble], domestic employees of the white well-to-do Harrisons, are found bemoaning the "end of the line"; in answer to their nephew Junie's [Vydreon Moon] query, the Harrisons are getting divorced, and they'll be out of work. Though Junie says good riddance and is humiliated by the women's "lack of pride", there is a lot more to it than the surface reveals. Their gravy train will come to a stop, and a promised lifetime pension too. Their litany of "God helps those who help themselves" is recited on such a grand scale, and when Uncle Arthur [Claude McDonald, Jr.] and the rest of the off-stage family are effected, Arthur's "What are we gonna do?!" anticipates the upcoming disaster...and we also feel their distress. True to its title, there is a "happy ending", but not before a lot of hilarity ensues through the capable ensemble acting and Ward's very clever dialogue.

A talk-back session at the end of the evening got audience members and actors to address the very real issues of racial inequality that persist today. Through the comedy on stage, and whether one can absolve the characters of their "sins", there is a kind of retributive justice at hand that can't go unnoticed. Both plays have characters [Mrs. Love, Ellie, and Vi] who are tricksters, ones who use their seemingly inferior status to their advantage; and we always root for the underdog. Their triumphs are greeted with laughter and cheers.

The Peacock Tract Cultural Arts Alliance is off to a fine start, anticipating future successes. For further information, contact