One of the advantages to the new theaters in town is that larger companies can play host to other troupes and people who don't fit into their regular season. The Huntington Theatre Company, for example, has opened its doors to the extraordinary Jacqui Parker and the Our Place Theatre Project, which has been able to move its African American Theatre Festival to the elegant, state-of-the-art Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, giving its fifth annual festival greater visibility along with a better stage to play on.
How successful the move has been depends on your expectations. If you are looking for the next Suzan-Lori Parks or August Wilson among the new playwrights featured in two of the four main programs, you won't find such a writer. Perhaps those are the wrong expectations, though, because what you will find are several talented, up-and-coming black actors, directors, and designers. And more significantly, the festival offers an array of plays that show the breadth of the African-American experience in such a way that audiences new to theater might pick up the habit.
That may sound condescending, but it is in line with the Our Place mission, which is, in part, "to help under-represented youth and adults discover their ability to empower themselves."
If you are looking for literary delights, the most accomplished work on the boards is "Spunk," George C. Wolfe's 1991 adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's short stories. Each features a grouping of characters competing for dignity or status, money or sex within proscribed limits, even if they don't always understand the proscriptions. Hurston and Wolfe obviously have great affection for each of them, except the abusive husband in "Sweat," and the actors involved have an equally contagious empathy for the characters. Wolfe has done a fine job of shifting the narration from one character to another so that Hurston's prose remains audible, along with the dialogue.
An evening of Ed Bullins plays from the 1960s, "Those That Came Before," is not as successful. Although these characters are closer to our time than those in Hurston's stories, they seem further removed. The young cast isn't completely at home with the shifting rhythms of Bullins's work, but those cadences can also seem dated, particularly when they involve the college-educated black men in his plays. The best, "A Son, Come Home," is the least naturalistic, with a son and mother discussing their life choices, while another pair of actors play a variety of characters drawn from their reminiscences. Karimah Williams and Valencia Hughes-Imani are the standouts of the evening.
Where the festival works best is as a showcase for local actors and designers. Parker, the Our Place artistic director, has long been a fixture on the local scene, having won both a StageSource Theatre Hero Award and an Elliot Norton, and she is clearly the focal point of both "Ascension" and "Spunk," partly because she's in almost every scene of both, but mostly because of her range and stage presence.
Her character's attempts to maintain her and her husband's pride while shackled to the plantation owner who can't keep his hands off her in "Ascension" grip the heart, while her more earthy characters in "Spunk" find just the right strut for each situation. It's a rare ability to mix spirituality and sexiness as seamlessly as Parker does.
The rest of the casts in "Ascension" and "Spunk" are smoothly engaging. Linda Starks is convincingly folky in "Ascension" and vampish in "Spunk" (and both she and Parker sing up a storm); David Curtis is authoritative as both an abusive ("Spunk") and abused ("Ascension") husband; Dorian Christian Baucum and Darius Williams fill out the "Spunk" cast charismatically. (Jeff Gill is also impressive as the plantation owner in "Ascension.")
The designers are more of a rainbow coalition. Among the black artists, directors Robbie McCauley and Jeff Robinson keep everyone moving smartly. Frank A. Shefton's sound design adds much to each of the plays, while Anita Hamilton's costume design is perfect for each character. White guys jump in with their contributions, notably James P. Byrne with his slanted sets.
The new plays are a mixed bag. Many of them seem like a punch line in search of a more developed story, including the full-length "Ascension," a world premiere by Cynthia G. Robinson. The play focuses on a couple who are about to be married on a pre-Civil War plantation. "Ascension" would be better if Robinson just dispensed with the whole second act, which is thoroughly predictable until its clumsy deus ex machina ending.
The short plays that make up the "New Works" program offer a variety of scenes from contemporary life -- two dealing with the consequences of unprotected sex; a monologue complaining about store clerks eyeing a woman because she's black; and stories of a daughter of a maid exploding at the white woman for whom she worked, and of a pair of black teenagers who go out canvassing and meet their match in a feisty older white woman. There is also a pair of interesting stories that aren't race-specific.
These plays are more notable for their social stances or the twists in plot than they are for dialogue or development. Again, though, there is significant talent onstage, particularly among the women. A talented poet, U-Meleni, provides graceful segues, while Melanee Addison, Jackie Davis, and Valerie Lee show fine potential, as do the directors, including Parker herself.
We knew about the multitalented Parker coming in. Perhaps her most significant accomplishment with this festival is showing how much talent there is in the company she keeps.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The African American Theatre Festival
Produced by the Our Place Theatre Project.
At: Boston Center for the Arts, through Sunday. Spunk plays tomorrow night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. "Ascension" plays again tonight and Friday night. "Those That Came Before" plays Thursday night. "New Works" plays again Saturday afternoon, and a play written and directed by Jacqui Parker, "The Truthful Truth . . . Sojourner and Phyllis on the Wings of Gabriel," plays at 10 a.m. tomorrow. 617-933-8600.