In 1965 a young African-American actor, Douglas Turner Ward, produced two one-act plays he had written, Happy Ending and Day of Absence. The double bill enjoyed a successful fourteen-month run off-Broadway, and its triumph precipitated Ward's creation of New York's Negro Ensemble Company, where he continues to serve as artistic director.
Six years before the plays' premiere, Ward had a lead role in Lorraine Hansberry's landmark play A Raisin in the Sun, a drama then considered groundbreaking for its depiction of racial discord as seen from a black perspective. However, just as Malcolm X broke ranks with Martin Luther King Jr. over how to deal with racial issues--King preached non-violence while Malcolm advocated revolution--Hansberry's poetic eloquence stands in sharp contrast to Ward's biting commentary.
Ward gets his message across by way of sharp satire, and the Shadow Theatre Company's entertaining revival of his plays frequently capitalizes on the playwright's politically incorrect point of view. Sparked by a handful of superb performances, Day of Absence earned a richly deserved standing ovation on opening night; by contrast, Happy Ending was diminished in its impact due to a lack of cohesive direction. Nevertheless, both plays are worth seeing for their unique examination of racial interdependence in America.
In Happy Ending, Gwen Harris and Roslyn Washington play two sisters, domestic workers who desperately want their Manhattan employers, the Harrisons, to stay married: Ellie and Vi stand to forfeit a lifetime pension promised to them by Mr. Harrison if the wealthy white couple divorce before their daughter reaches her tenth birthday. Complicating matters further, the sisters need their jobs in order to sustain their lavish lifestyle--all of their household expenses and luxuries have been surreptitiously billed to and unwittingly paid by the Harrisons.
When their nephew Junie (David Pinckney), who lives with them, objects to their concern for the white couple, the two "aunties" remind him that his prized, natty outfits have been supplied by Mr. Harrison. They likewise admonish Ellie's husband, Arthur (Dwayne Carrington), telling him that his expensive tastes in food and drink are quenched by the Harrisons' overflowing larder, not by the fruits of his paltry labors. Left on his own, he'd have to take a second job just to make ends meet, they tell him--an observation that may ring true for a greater percentage of people today than it did thirty years ago.
While there are many whimsical moments in the piece, director Hugo Jon Sayles is unable to elicit the kind of cutting-edge performances from his actors that the piece requires. The actors' under-rehearsed efforts are characterized by missed cues and flubbed lines. Additionally, Sayles fails to orchestrate several peaks and valleys that occur in the drama. For example, when the women argue that they've earned their pension by buttering up the Harrisons, their climactic exchange should serve as a capstone to several minutes of carefully constructed action. Instead, Sayles flatlines the crucial moment, and a play that should be poised to deliver a knockout punch gropes about in search of a pulse.
The actors do manage to land a few important points near the end of the 45-minute work. Maybe they did embarrass the NAACP by sucking up to the Harrisons, they tearfully whine, but they got something in return that was more valuable than their pride: the good life. The audience, by this point aware of the playwright's satiric view of economic enslavement, revels in the well-played moment.
Picking up where its companion piece leaves off in terms of both social commentary and proficiency in performance, Day of Absence is given a splendid staging by director Jeffrey W. Nickelson. Two actors costumed in black clothing and sporting white, painted faces--the exact opposite of the makeup once used in touring minstrel shows--begin the drama set in a small Southern town.
Clem (Carrington) maniacally chews on a single strand of grass and makes small talk with Luke (Darius Jackson) as they watch life go by on the town's main drag. Gradually, the two white hayseeds realize that something is amiss. Artfully playing each moment, Carrington sends the audience into fits of laughter when he expertly pauses, does a wide-eyed take to his partner-in-prejudice and, incredulous, blurts out the cause for the day's strangeness: There are no "nigras" about. For the remainder of the 75-minute play, Ward's scathing invective hits home--but only after we've finished thoroughly laughing at the characters (and, by extension, at ourselves).
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The playwright spares no one in his farcical examination of a society that has outlawed slavery on the plantation only to institutionalize it in the workplace. Immediately mobilizing the town's forces, the mayor (Vincent C. Robinson, in a virtuoso performance) determines to restore order to his hamlet. Someone, after all, must do the washing and the shoe-shining. Then there's the crisis faced by Two-a-Day Pete: Without any nigras in town to arrest, the local cop loses his cool and is carted off to the loony bin. Just when all seems hopeless, the mayor and his cohorts play what they believe to be their ace in the hellhole: Those nigras that remain in hospital beds can be summoned to perform the menial tasks of the day.
When it turns out that even these invalids have mysteriously vanished, the mayor goes on television, appealing to nigras everywhere to come out of hiding. He tells them they are missed, swears allegiance to Aunt Jemimah, and then does a jig to summon home his "help." In that highly charged moment, the playwright's anger emerges mid-dance, and the laughter that has long reverberated throughout the tiny theater suddenly fades away. Ward has got us in the palm of his hand, and Nickelson and his company wisely strengthen their hold on us through the end of the play.
There are few companies anywhere that could deliver this play as this group has done--packed with both raucous laughter and hard-hitting commentary. Carrington and Robinson, in particular, deliver performances that illuminate Ward's work rather than comment on it. Shadow Theatre Company is tackling issues that loom larger than ever these days and stands poised to offer itself as a prominent voice in the local theater community. That it is not the expected, anticipated voice of conciliation enforces our attention all the more.
Happy Ending and Days of Absence, through November 15 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 292-6446.