By Kay Kipling
Jar the Floor, now onstage at Art Center Sarasota, is something of a departure from the rest of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 2009-10 season. For one thing, it’s not a musical revue; for another, it requires a bit more in the way of a set. And finally, it places artistic director Nate Jacobs in a role he wasn’t intending to play—as a woman.
For Jacobs, who’s made a success of his one-woman show playing “Aunt Rudelle,” putting on a dress and wig is not a new experience. But his character in this play by Cheryl West, while still a spunky woman used to speaking her mind, is a very different kind of matriarch: While Lola is a mother and a grandmother, she definitely likes to party.
Unfortunately, the party taking place in Jar the Floor is not quite what she had in mind. It’s for the 90th birthday of her mother, MaDear (Tammy Elaine), whose mind may be wandering but whose spirit is still strong. MaDear lives with her granddaughter, MayDee (Alice M. Gatling), who at the same time as the approaching party is anxiously awaiting word of receiving tenure in her teaching job—and word of the arrival of her own daughter, Vennie (Jaszy McAllister), with whom she has a difficult relationship, to say the last. Throw into the mix Vennie’s white, Jewish friend (Amanda Schlachter), and you’ve got a recipe for some tense confrontations.
From the outset, that tension is played for laughs, and there are many good ones as the women banter back and forth. Jacobs gets many of the most outrageous lines, and his innate comic timing guarantees payoff; even though he had to step into the role at almost the last moment, he seems pretty sure of Lola’s identity. Elaine also has some good rejoinders whenever she re-enters the present action from her own personal past in her mind.
Of course, each of these women carries some burden of the past, and each has issues with the mother-daughter relationship—issues of guilt, neediness, lack of appreciation and approval, etc. The question is, can mistakes be forgiven so everyone can move on? In the last half of the evening, things come to a boil and questions are answered.
That last half is a little long; we don’t need quite as much of the argument between MayDee and Vennie about who’s at fault in their relationship (we get it). It doesn’t help that Gatling and McAllister play the roles with the least humor in them, but they are convincing (although McAllister could vary her facial expressions more). Schlachter is moving in her scenes with MaDear, especially when she imagines herself in a café in Europe, the center of attention (you have to know her own secret to understand why, but wait until you see the show; I won’t give it away here).
While Jar the Floor focuses on one African-American family living in the 1990s in a Chicago suburb, the playwright is successful is achieving what she sets out to do with her work, according to an interview quoted in the show’s press materials. “The more specific your characters are, the more universal they become; and then, the audience can relate.” Whatever your background, you’re likely to relate to the mother-daughter struggles here.
Jar the Floor continues through May 9 (Mother’s Day!) at Art Center Sarasota. For tickets call 366-1505; go to wbttroupe.org for more info.