review: baltimore in black and white

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Baltimore in Black and White

By Jason Odell Williams
Directed by Charlotte Cohn
Featuring Judy Jerome, Christopher Burris, Charleigh E. Parker, Sadrina Renee
The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street
production web site:  http://www.thecelltheatre.org/bbwmay2011/

May 2, 2011 — May 21, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 11, 2011

Set in 2007 (with flashback childhood scenes in a playground in 1987), Baltimore in Black and White tells tales about some children climbing on playground equipment  who grow into adults who climb all over each other on the issue of race and love and relationships in America.  For reasons that don’t add to the dramatic intensity of the work, playwright Jason Odell Williams sets the story in Baltimore.  Other than the accent complete with the final “Hon” that flavors the initial announcements (I lived in Washington DC for 8 years and grew to know the Bal’mer accent well during that time — http://www.baltimorehon.com/), Baltimore as a place with specific dimensions does not emerge from this text.  What we do have is a set of short scenes in backyards and frat houses and a bus stop and a church and elsewhere, that could be situated in anywhere U.S.A., involving a range of characters that ultimately meet at a wedding between two characters who met as small children climbing on that playground equipment.  (It all seems very Short Cuts, doesn’t it?  Very Robert Altman at any rate.) Lori (Judy Jerome) is white, Marcus (Christopher Burris) is a son of a black mother and a white father, and their friends and family just have to deal.There is brilliance in the direction by Charlotte Cohn — swift and elegant choreography within and between the many short skit-like scenes.  And in the text there is humor and truth about race relations as abstractions (how do adult black women feel when eligible black men date white women) and specifics (an urban white woman chants rap wired to her MP3 player and makes assumptions about a middle-aged black woman who waits with her for a bus).   Charleigh E. Parker plays two of the characters just mentioned with humor, grace, and a huge heart.  The lovers at the core of this drama capture the nuances of true attraction pulled and tugged by social and familial expectations.   It’s humor based on sidling through life.

Eight actors create a world of characters and a lifetime of scenes involving several generations grappling together with race relations.  There are, to be sure, several moments that ring terribly jarringly false — for example, the dynamics between the groomsmen at the church and the extent to which they banter about going to get drinks before the ceremony play much more like a bachelor party the night before the ceremony or the reception after the ceremony.  These are moments to tweak. What this play does provide are multi-dimensional layers of a stunning and evocative story.  An example of a flashback nuance that haunts: Marcus’s mother played by Sadrina Renee and Lori’s father Christopher Burke see the true connection between their young children and feel a true connection between themselves that evaporates into the air, but we are privileged to observe it.

Appreciation of people in characters portrayed by some beautiful acting in a tiny performance space in Chelsea.  This show will make you smile and exit the theatre with a lightness to your step.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 12, 2011)

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