Watching Jar the Floor at the Civic's Studio Theater (through May 8) is like watching several months of bad soap opera crammed into one night. A two-and-three-quarter-hour-long night.
Most of the evening consists of hands on hips with the hips jutted out, eyes rolling, looks of disbelief, mothers and daughters perpetually yelling, accusations and counter-accusations flying. If it wasn't about one damn thing, it was about another.
Cheryl L. West's dramedy beckons us with "Oprah sesame": Open up the floodgates, sisters, and let your feelings flow -- no matter how contrived, no matter how much emotional voyeurism is involved, all that matters is having a good cry. Make those tear ducts seep the good sap o' catharsis.
Granted, growing up black, poor and female in racist, classist and sexist territory has to be difficult in ways that middle-class white men like me find hard to fathom. But it doesn't follow that any random cornucopia of the Problems of Black Sisterhood qualifies as effective theater. West's idea of dramatic structure is to pair up characters, have them face off while screaming out old resentments, then stomp out of the room and return with sheepish "I'm so sorry, Mama" expressions.
There are moments of authenticity in this show, but they're fleeting and too few. Now West, having spent 15 years as a social worker before she ever started writing plays, has helped far more people in her life than I ever will. And there's a strong sense that she directly knew people with the domestic and social problems she presents: cancer, infidelity, senility, career-family conflicts, serial man-chasing as a cure for personal insecurity, alcoholism, childhood abuse, an over-scheduled life. There isn't a source of conflict that she hasn't bear-hugged, wept over and ushered lovingly onto the couch of this TV movie gabfest.
The Onyx Theater Troupe, which is producing this show in cooperation with the Civic, has staged some good shows. Its performances several years ago of August Wilson plays -- Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Two Trains Running in particular -- and of Bryan Harnetiaux's award-winning National Pastime last year brought forth enriching versions of theater about the black American experience. The last Onyx production in the Studio Theater -- Flyin' West, a year and a half ago -- wasn't good, but Jar the Floor represents even further sinking.
There are plenty of other black playwrights to choose from -- Kia Corthron, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, John Henry Redmond, even the non-Raisin plays of Lorraine Hansberry. Onyx can chart a better course by choosing better scripts with material more suited to its cast members. With one gut-wrenching issue after another, Jar the Floor demands extensive range from its five actors. Now the Oedipus plays also feature some outrageous situations, but they also require larger-than-life actors to make their conflicts believable. The Onyx cast, required to portray a spectrum from rage to hijinks, from anguish to bemusement, doesn't have that kind of range.
The plot involves four generations of the Lakeland family getting together to celebrate the 90th birthday of the matriarch, MaDear (Florence Everette, in her first stage performance anywhere). MaDear's sudden crazed outbursts, meant to be knee-slapping commentaries on what the others would rather leave unsaid, come off merely as nonsensical ejaculations: "Mama, what are you talkin' 'bout?" Florence Everette, who's active in her church and various social causes, projects unselfconscious vitality onstage. She should continue in other, better roles.
Yolanda Everette as Lola, the Blanche Devereaux figure in this gaggle of R-rated Golden Girls, is too nervous in her delivery to be persuasive as someone who moves unselfconsciously on the dance floor and is bound and determined to dress up all pretty, go out and grab herself a man.
The best of the lot is probably Venus DelCambree as MayDee, the tight-lipped professional woman who over-scheduled herself and her daughter during her steady climb toward tenure. In portraying MayDee's emotional distance and insistence on lining up all her ducks, DelCambree has the cast's most naturalistic mannerisms.
As Vennie, the great-granddaughter who arrives home stoned and with (surprise!) a girlfriend, Sumira Smith needs to differentiate more between the infectious, dance-loving sequences and moments of genuine rage; her entire performance is on one level. Still, in the evening's best moment, Smith spits an insult at her mother -- "Being your daughter hurts" -- and her delivery brought a hush to the audience. Two minutes after MayDee walked out, however, she walked back in, and, with no motivation, all was forgiven. Even ice goddesses don't act like this.
At the end of Jar the Floor, MaDear invites the family to join in the obligatory Concluding Dance of Dramatic Reconciliation -- it's of the foot-stompin' variety, hence the title -- but after listening to this quintet of harpies screech at one another for nearly three hours, I was wishing that they would jar a few holes in the floorboards.
Unfortunately, the Studio Theater's playing surface is made of concrete.