At The Lookingglass Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –Race relations in the United States can be improved by addressing a number of hot button issues—like chronic poverty, unemployment, poor education in the inner city, gun violence, and black-police relations. Playwright Kevin Douglas has chosen one of the more obscure solutions, reparations. That’s the core of his comedy drama “Plantation!” at the Lookingglass Theatre. The concept works pretty well as a springboard for sitcom style comedy. It stumbles as a serious approach to a solution to this country’s racial disfunctions.
Supporters of reparations take as their starting point that for generations until the Civil War, white America got rich off the free labor of black slaves. Reparations advocates insist that the time is overdue to repay black America for their work in cotton fields of the South, though just how reparations would be determined and to who would receive them has never been established. The entire concept is so complex and so controversial that a coherent reparations plan has never surfaced.
The Kevin Douglas play chooses the reparations theme in an intermissionless 95-minute play presented by an all female cast. The director is David Schwimmer, the television and motion picture star who is also a member of the Lookingglass ensemble, as is Kevin Douglas. Schwimmer is white and Douglas is black.
The play is set in the palatial living room of a mansion somewhere in Texas at the present time. The mansion is the seat of a plantation that has been in the Wright family for generations. The family now consists of Lillian Wright and her three unmarried young daughters, Kimberly, Kara, and Kayley. Lillian has gathered her girls together to drop a bombshell. Lillian has run a genealogical search on her family tree and identified one black slave who actually had Wright blood in her. Lillian has traced the slave’s progeny to three young black women now living in Chicago. She has invited the women to the plantation to announce that she is giving the visitors the mansion as reparations for the injustices done to their ancestors back in slavery days.
Lillian’s daughters are both astounded and outraged at their mother’s give-away. Their feelings are further inflamed by the arrival of the black female inheritors from Chicago, who weren’t told of Lillian’s gift until after their arrival. That’s one improbability the playwright shuttles to the side unless I missed an explanation for the Chicagoans acceptance of the unlikely invitation out of the blue.
The three black visitors are favorably contrasted with the local white girls. The black women—London, Madison, and Sydney—are awed by the mansion and wary and mistrustful of Lillian’s out-of-nowhere generosity, but they are savvy, street smart, and independent. Lillian’s three daughters are variously self absorbed, naïve, insensitive, and ditsy.
Immediately after Lillian drops her announcement, her three daughters go into attack mode, spurred on by Kimberly. They try to discredit the visitors by allegedly uncovering character flaws intended to turn against Lillian against them and revoke the bequest. But the character assassinations laughably come to nothing. Then Kimberly decides the sisters should dress up in Ku Klux Klan regalia to terrorize the black women into fleeing the mansion for Chicago. The lowlight of this stratagem is the outraged Sydney chasing the white robed Kimberly around the set swinging a tennis racket. The play has descended into French farce, a considerable distance from meaningful racial commentary.
The frantic chase is one instance of the action trivializing the play’s intent. Another is giving the three daughters first names that begin with K, for no other reason apparently than to squeeze a laugh from Kara Wright genially noting that their first names combine to use the initials KKK, guaranteed to extract a chuckle from the audience from the black women’s reaction.
The performances are all well up to the Lookingglass standard. Louise Lamson (Kimberly), Lindsey Page Morton (Kara), Grace Smith (Kayley), Lily Mojekwu (London), Tamberla Perry (specially good as the sassy (Madison), and Ericka Ratcliff (Sydney) all do well as the two sets of young women. Hannah Gomez makes the most of her role as the Wright family maid who conveniently happens to be a notary public available to validate Lillian’s bequest to the black women. And beautifully presiding over the ensemble is Janet Ulrich Brooks as Lillian. Brooks, who gives her character a dignity and intelligence that could have descended into a woolly-minded do-gooder in less capable hands.
Director David Schwimmer has more success with the play’s physical and verbal humor than with its more serious intensions. One of the stars of the production is Courtney O’Neill, whose elaborate bi-level mansion interior is elegant and detailed enough to invite sale to a well-heeled buyer after the show closes. A high five also goes to Amanda Hermann for her splendid assemblage of properties that gild the set.
Mara Blumenfeld designed the costumes, including a set of 19th century ball gowns all the characters but the maid wear to give historical authority to a dinner party Lillian gives for the Chicagoans. The three gowns worn by the Chicagoans all improbably fit perfectly, yielding realism to stage effect for no logical reason. But logic is in short supply throughout the play. Christine Binder designed the lighting and Rick Sims is the sound designer and composer.
The pleasures of “Plantation!” reside almost entirely in its comic moments, strained as many of them are. There can be a workable satiric comedy on the race issue. Bruce Norris has done it. Douglas obviously believes that reparations are a viable talking point in the ongoing racial discussion in this country, but in “Plantation!” that debate stirs the emotions very little, until the final blackout, which might stir a bit of discussion among patrons. But what works best is the snappy dialogue, especially the attitude-drenched talk from the Chicago ladies. Still, much of the humor will appeal primarily to audiences with a high tolerance for silliness and improbability. Douglas shouldn’t concern himself with avoiding alienating or offending his viewers. The current play undeniably entertains, when it needs to anger and challenge.
“Plantation!” runs through April 22 at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $75. Call 312 337 0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
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