Divas Unlugged

Penumbra's three-sister, three-hour drama runs on vapors

Careers can come undone in an instant, turning into fodder for the fickle public, the savage press, the punctual remixer. The great Bill Buckner is Boston's eternal Little Leaguer. Howard Dean looks to become a footnote to the work of Dr. Arthur Janov. And consider poor Roberto Duran. The Panamanian was a ferocious, recklessly persistent boxer, but he's most remembered for giving up. He's the guy who, after eight rounds of being dodged and taunted by Sugar Ray Leonard, issued one of athletic history's most plaintive, pithy concessions: "No mas." Early in Act 1 of Kim Euell's tale of three sisters, Diva Daughters DuPree, scholar and boxing fan Sarah DuPree (Thomasina Petrus) jokes with her brother-in-law Zak (Brent Doyle) about Duran's famous surrender. Three hours later, as this smart but grievously desultory play was winding down, I began to feel a certain kinship with Mr. Duran.

Now, I should stress that my silent "No mas" was more crestfallen than desperate. Diva Daughters isn't one of those Help! I'm-trapped-in-the-theater shows--it's often funny and sometimes trenchant, especially in its treatment of colorism. For Sarah, the middle sister, light skin proved to be a boon and a bane. It helped her get into a fancy boarding school, for instance, but it also attracted superficial wooers looking for the ultimate status accessory. This issue is nicely woven into the play's narrative flow, but elsewhere, director Lou Bellamy and his six-person cast struggle with the script's bulky ambition. Themes and storylines breed with Malthusian vigor, yet lack enough narrative structure to rein them in or sufficient profundity to lend them an epic heft.

The play takes place over a few days in October of 1995 and builds around the unplanned reunion of three sisters who converge on the family home they inherited from their late parents. First-born Billie (Ericka Dennis) is a Mercedes-driving businesswoman in her mid-30s who carries the weight of her feckless husband Zak and has mastered both the passive and active varieties of aggression. Sarah, the family's leftist gadfly, is a popular history professor who has recently been denied tenure and is also trying to sort out her romantic relationship with grad student Spencer (Rob Manning). The baby sister, Abbey (Kimberly Morgan), is a bisexual world traveler who has just married Uri (Dylan Fresco), a doting Israeli whom she thinks she can learn to love.

Stop smiling or I'll tell Mom: [Top to bottom] Thomasina Petrus, Ericka Dennis, and Kimberly Morgan
Act One, Too, Ltd.
Stop smiling or I'll tell Mom: [Top to bottom] Thomasina Petrus, Ericka Dennis, and Kimberly Morgan

Through voiceover, an excess of expository dialogue, and the recitation of a conveniently uncovered letter from the DuPrees' dad, Euell endows the sisters with detailed biographies but not much depth of character. Billie is imperious and materialistic, traits that Dennis plays too broadly. At times, the portrayal hides the character's intelligence, almost to the point of making her professional success seem implausible. As the flighty Abbey, Morgan must face a couple of clunker scenes--she's in charge, for instance, of reading the aforementioned letter, which leads the play to its irritatingly tidy conclusion. But she doesn't help her cause much when she repeatedly telegraphs her character's joie de vivre by bounding rabbitlike into scenes.

There are a lot of resentments to keep track of, a lot of sororal and romantic relationships to stay invested in, and a lot of issues to ponder: interracial marriage, class divisions, colorism, the obstacles set before African American academics, even the Million Man March, from which Spencer has just returned. The sum of these parts feels something like a sporadically insightful panel discussion desperately in need of a moderator.

 
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