WHEN WAS THE last time you saw a play and felt the ground move beneath you? After a forgettable summer for theater, that rare sensation reappeared last week. Plainly put, Jar the Floor rocked my world. And it's a hell of a kickoff for Penumbra's 21st season--even if it is a revival of a fairly recent production.
Ideally, African American theater, like all other, should involve female sensibilities as well as male, and women playwrights, directors, and actors as much as men. That's what Penumbra gives us here. This is what sexual equality looks like.
All that gender stuff aside, Jar the Floor also presents some of the finest, tightest writing, directing, and ensemble acting I've seen in a while. I'm not sure what they do over at Penumbra that some other theaters aren't doing--perhaps it's simply a question of age, maturity, and familiarity with the material. Whatever it is, if I were a director, I'd be taking notes.
The play, written by Cheryl West, is about one day in the life of a family of women--from great-grandmother MaDear to great-granddaughter Vennie. It's about the junk that people pass down through generations--the guilt, insecurities and resentments--and it's also about forgiving people for the weaknesses they can't help, no matter how awful. The show's thesis comes out through Lola, the woman in the middle of it all, who is at once a granddaughter, daughter, mother, and grandmother:
"Look like every week Oprah got some crazy on her program that's killed somebody or raped somebody or can't keep a job or got some other kind of problem and who they say is the cause? They mother! It's a damn shame that the woman responsible for bringing you into this world got to hear you rise up one day and blame her for every ill that comes your way... bunch of ungrateful SOBs... makes the hair on the back of my ass rise."
The women have gathered for MaDear's 90th birthday; her husband is dead, and she now lives with her granddaughter, MayDee, while spiralling into senility. None of these women gets along with her own mother or daughter: Each has disappointed the other bitterly. Like most of us, these women can't see their mothers as fully human individuals who did their best with what they had. For MaDear and Lola, that has meant laboring in menial jobs and relying on a man, or in Lola's case, a series of men. For MayDee, it's meant working obsessively to get through college and graduate school, never spending much time with her own child, Vennie. Each left home at the first opportunity, each used guilt or cruelty on her own daughter--despite Lola's statement that "We ain't what you would call a guilt family." The only relaxed connections are between grandmother and child, where distance--both financial and genetic--allows for vulnerability.
The mix is leavened by Raisa, the play's only white character; she's Vennie's new lover and recently underwent a mastectomy. Raisa's a puzzling monkeywrench, a risky addition that pays off slowly and beautifully. With all these tensions, Jar the Floor is a high-wire act where, as Raisa puts it, people are constantly knocked down. The cast is flammable and fantastic--especially Edna Duncan as MaDear and Rebecca Myers as Lola (both members of Penumbra's original production cast). They have the script's rhythms in their marrow and take repeated risks--Rice with her manic dancing and firecracker delivery, Duncan with her ventures between tenderness, misery, acidity, and pure delusion. But all these women shoot each other with swift words and little mercy; it's difficult to watch, and would be unbearable if not for constant outbursts of gut-level humor. Faye Price as MayDee is a painful mix of sugar and stress, though she occasionally overstates her character's false breeziness.
One would imagine the rehearsal process was fairly wild, but director Bette Howard (of New York's Black Spectrum Theatre) says she pulled these performances out by helping the actors relax: The cast spent the first four days of rehearsal hanging out, talking over their characters, gaining rapport, telling stories of their own families. Howard also decided early on that she would direct this as a drama, not a comedy. And it pays off: Though we're laughing throughout, we almost never feel the actors are trying to be funny. Likewise, in the gorgeous and devastating climax, the emotionalism stays just this side of sentimentality. The tension between extremes is a fine throughline pulled taut from beginning to end. Nothing comes easy. Because of that, we feel burned and baptized by play's end.
Jar the Floor plays at Penumbra Theatre through November 9; call 224-3180.