Fête de Famille

Birthday blues: Welker White, Irma P. Hall, and Linda Powell in Jar the Floor.Photo: Susan Cook

It is greatly in Cheryl L. West’s favor that she has no secret black or feminist agenda. She writes not as a political agitator but only as a playwright and human being. Like her other plays, Jar the Floor deals with people; that all five are women, four of them black, is secondary. Above all, they are individuals, laughing and crying, fighting and reconciling, and spilling their guts. And guts know no race or gender.

We meet the Dawkinses, a black family in a nineties Chicago suburb, trying to celebrate the 90th birthday of Viola, or MaDear, in and out of her wheelchair, in and out of her right mind. There is her loudmouthed, riotously funny daughter, Lola “Bird,” too involved with too many men to have been much of a mother. There is Lola’s daughter, Maydee, the intellectual who, at enormous cost, did all kinds of work to become a college professor now up for tenure, while also saving up money for the education of her daughter, Vennie. But Vennie is a dropout, seeking a career as a free-spirited pop singer, and has teamed up with a young, white, Jewish woman, Raisa, who has lost one breast to a cancer that still grows inside her.

Vennie would like to get what she considers her money for travel in Europe with Raisa, whose married life is a mess, but whose fantasies about Europe are simple and glowing. The elder Dawkinses are all lonely women, with dead or fled husbands, united in their befuddlement about Raisa – white, strange, and seemingly too close to Vennie, who has shaved her head out of solidarity with Raisa’s chemotherapy. Are these women friends or lovers?

In two jam-packed acts, everyone gets to carry on royally; did I mention that MaDear still thinks she has her Mississippi vegetable garden outside, and her late husband alive and kicking from below – jarring the floor? There are enough subplots for a three-volume Russian novel, and more confrontations than I can confront here.

One could call Jar the Floor boulevard comedy-drama, a not entirely well made well-made play, more like a TV mini-series. But it is also at times hilarious, at others touching; its characters, however excessive, are fundamentally worthy; its dialogue, though often veering into quasi-operatic arias, is veridical or at least verisimilar; its generational conflicts are vividly and wittily captured, and its acting and directing are unsurpassable.

As the sometimes senile and infantile, sometimes curiously canny great-granny, Irma P. Hall does wonders with her hyperactive eyeballs and capriciously unpredictable legs. As her granddaughter Maydee, Regina Taylor conveys both dignified restraint and extremes of raging despair, between which she must breathlessly shuttle, with tremendous warmth and conviction. As Vennie, Linda Powell can be airy or intense, resentful or conciliatory, with equal ease, and also listens with remarkable, wordless eloquence. As Raisa, Welker White is moving when she nonchalantly displays her wounds, and even more so when she dreams about being queen of the Roman and Parisian cafés.

Yet even a trifle more magnificent is the Lola of Lynne Thigpen, of such power that you fear she might blow the set away, which is not the same as chewing up the scenery. Big of body and mouth, and sometimes even of heart, she can get into the hair of someone bald as an egg, but also kid her funny way into everyone’s well-being. Miss Thigpen’s performance is both epic and lyrical, a wisecracking, unpredictable, and disturbing, but ultimately benevolent, hurricane, and yes, I know that is a paradox.

Marion McClinton has directed with consummate skill and sass, able to keep in clear focus what is sometimes a three-ring circus. The play may be overcooked like the food in Maydee’s oven, and the much-delayed birthday festivities arrive a bit too neatly and sentimentally at curtain time; but it provides two enjoyable hours, food for thought that will simmer long after on your electrified brain.

Fête de Famille