I've been dancing around this conclusion, trying to find a way to put it more tactfully, but I can't: Waitin¹ 2 End Hell is a nasty, misogynist play. You can dress it up all you want with theories about the problems of the black family and the unfair and emasculating fact that African-American women are more likely than their male counterparts to attend college and get professional jobs, but William A. Parker's script feels like nothing so much as the revenge fantasy of a man who's been dumped a few times too often. It tells the story of a career-minded black woman, Diane, who's cold and unfeeling toward her noble and long-suffering -- though quick-tempered -- working-class husband, Dante. Once Dante has left her for a warmer, sexier woman, Diane weeps alone on the sofa, finally realizing just what a bitch she's been.
As the action opens, we're introduced to a group of people playing cards around a table: Dante and Diane, Larry and his date, husband and wife Angela and Alvin. There's a lot of laughter and teasing, and all seems well between Diane and Dante. It's their anniversary, and he's bought her jewelry and booked a two-week trip to the Caribbean -- although she was apparently too busy to get him anything.
Larry starts laying down precepts about the relationship between men and women, insisting that a man should be king in his own house, decrying the fertility of black women and their endless illegitimate babies as "the black man's crucifix." His date, Shay, argues fiercely. Actor Harvy Blanks -- one of the most talented members of the Denver Center Theatre Company -- makes Larry so charming and funny that you almost want to agree with him as he pushes his point further and further into absurdity, and he and Hugo Jon Sayles's Alvin are terrific together as they take on the women. It seems as if playwright Parker is about to give us a good-natured, high-spirited, African-American take on the age-old battle of the sexes.
Waitin' 2 End Hell
Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street
Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through May 6, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com
So when the men leave the stage, you wait for the women to mount an equally energetic dissection of their partners, but you wait in vain. Diane mildly asks Shay how she likes Larry, as if the two hadn't just finished a passionate argument. Shay reveals that though she's not sure she likes Larry, she's planning to sleep with him. Pretty soon you realize that not one of the three women is a genuine character in her own right. Each is a paper-thin stereotype: Diane is the cold-hearted sister who's succeeded in a white man's world; Shay is either a slut or a woman deeply in love with Dante, depending on the kind of mouthpiece Parker needs at any particular moment; and Angela is the sweetly subservient Oriental woman who knows how to honor her man, giving him appreciation and lots of exotic sex.
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To do Parker justice, he does make some attempt to humanize these women. He even gives them one of those sequential suffering-monologue scenes during which Diane complains about her brutal father and Angela about the evil husband who took away her children. I don't remember Shay's complaint, but I'm sure she has one.
But poor Dante has a thousand. Diane won't talk to his mother on the phone. She doesn't take good care of their children. (This is one of those plays in which children exist somewhere off stage only to make a point; no one ever has to feed them or tell them a bedtime story.) She rebuffs his sexual overtures. And she's conducting an affair with a man at work, Mark (Damion Hoover is wasted in this role). Although he loves Diane almost beyond enduring, Dante is beginning to wonder if a good relationship with a sister is even possible. He and Alvin discuss this a lot. Shadow Theatre Company founder and artistic director Jeffrey Nickelson, who plays Dante, is a powerful actor, but he might have done better to work against the suffocating combination of self-pity and wounded nobility provided by the script. When Waitin' 2 End Hell is funny, it works; there's some real vitality in the scenes where the men tease, mock or confide in each other. But when it goes for drama, it's obvious and excruciating. Comparisons between Dante and other men betrayed by their women seem particularly overblown -- and also sloppy. Delilah may indeed have been a traitor, but poor Desdemona was completely innocent.
For this Shadow Theatre production, Nickelson was able not only to cast Blanks, but to secure the directorial services of another DCTC actor, Charles Weldon, who's also artistic director of New York's Negro Ensemble Company. The result is a very strong cast. Sayles and Blanks romp away with the show whenever they're on stage, but given better dialogue, the women could give them a run for their money. In her first-ever stage performance, Yukako Doi plays a gentle, poised Angela. Simone St. John makes Shay an interesting spitfire, and Jada Roberts creates a sophisticated Diane. Except that she almost always looks too damn smart to be speaking the words coming out of her mouth.