Good acting makes Ebony Theater production worthwhile

By Gary Clift

Cheryl L. West’s “Jar the Floor” got a terrific production recently in K-State’s Purple Masque Theater. The play, directed by Libby Uthoff, was Ebony Theater’s contribution to the increasingly unfocused observance of Black History Month. But as has almost always been the case with ET productions, this theater evening didn’t need any outside excuse for being.

This is not to say that the script deserved a local airing. Cheryl West’s “Jar the Floor” needs the help of a good cast, well-rehearsed and running quick, or it is not going to satisfy an audience. Part comedy and part “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” it has trouble establishing what it is about.

Oh, we know the characters are gathering to celebrate Madear’s ninetieth birthday. It is suggested that they may on the same day hear whether or not Madear’s granddaughter, Maydee, has been given academic tenure. These two women, one of them apparently losing her memory and one stiffly civil, live together in the house that is the play’s set.

They are visited by other female family members. Lola, Madear’s daughter and Maydee’s mother, bursts in with party food. Later they will be joined by Maydee’s daughter Vennie and her friend Raisa. So we have four generations of women and no men. Madear, who is partial to her son, continues to expect him to arrive for the celebration.

There is some of that “Men are Bad” sentiment to the script, apparently borrowed from entertainments on the Lifetime Channel. But the older women regard their relationships with men as very significant. Madear misses her husband of decades. Lola seems to have found ways to make liaisons supply her with security.

Vennie’s father is long, long gone. Raisa, we learn, has turned her husband out after the death of one of their children and the removal of one of her breasts. Her unbalanced bust is one of the play’s emphasized visuals, like the motorized wheelchair, the birthday banner, and the printed T-shirts.

The women spend a considerable amount of energy bickering in the way families probably always have. Vennie wants to get money from her mother, money she and Raisa can use to go to Europe. Once there, Vennie intends to continue her nightclub singing. But Maydee has saved that money for Vennie’s higher education and is furious that the girl has stopped just a semester short of completing her degree work.

Maydee is also very angry with her mother, though we don’t learn why exactly until half-way through the second act. Lola and Maydee are frustrated with Madear’s mental decline. And so on. One generation doesn’t communicate its admiration and affection for the generations immediately before and after it.

The story may seem to gangle, but there are regular and welcome passages, particularly early, of comedy, played with great verve here. And the inclusion of Raisa, with her stories of similar generational strife in her apparently Jewish family, helps keep the second act from going all TV movie.

The acting, though, was what really made the evening worthwhile. The cast was led by Shon Ruffin, whose talent has been proven before in campus productions. She played Lola and got everything out of the character that the script allows her, but without upstaging anyone else. Erika Williams was similarly successful with the more confined Maydee.

Madear’s character didn’t give Laura Vallerjo as many chances as the others got, but she made space for the senile personality without making her a clown. Alex Gaines seemed to me to have Vennie just right, and Erin Ressegieu’s Raisa, perhaps the best written of the characters, won our sympathy and still managed to take some of the inflation out of the family feuds.

The show was well-dressed and well-rehearsed. If we weren’t ready to applaud at the scene changes, that was the fault of the script, not of the production.

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