The play (with Bebe Wilson and Byron Jacquet) bumps along like daily life does — until the Big Issue comes along.
The play (with Bebe Wilson and Byron Jacquet) bumps along like daily life does — until the Big Issue comes along.
Courtesy Ensemble Theatre

Ashes to Africa is a stretch for the theater

Everything from death to sexual dysfunction troubles the Henderson family. Grandma's about to kick it, Mom's overworked, Dad's got his nose in girly mags and Junior's hooked on video games. Such are the family struggles in Mark Clayton Southers's sitcom-style Ashes to Africa, now on the boards at The Ensemble Theatre. Every new woe offers another reason for a silly joke, especially from the goofy men, who do most of the clowning in this mildly amusing tale of domestic dysfunction. And when the menfolk get too out of control, the women, in all their female wisdom, come along with a few lines of sugary sincerity in an effort to make all the shenanigans somehow ­meaningful.

These poor women don't get any breaks. Carrying most of the burden is hardworking, tired, middle-aged Martha Henderson (Bebe Wilson). Upstairs she's got her feeble mother, who can't even walk herself to the toilet. Downstairs is Martha's teenage son Martin (Joseph Palmore), who's too busy doing nothing to give her a hand. And soon enough Isaac (Byron Jacquet), the "king" of the house, slams in from work. He's one more chore for Martha — but he and his libido will have to wait till she's finished serving dinner and taking care of Grandma.

As the play begins, everything bumps along like daily life does — in fact, the story seems to be running in real time. Mom nags Martin. Dad comes in. Martin nags Mom. Dad chats about building out the basement for Martin. Mom sets the table. Junior begs to go out with friends. Southers clearly believes all this tedium is necessary to set us up for the Big Issue.


Ashes to Africa

The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Through May 25. $15-$22.

But first Grandma's got to die. Once the old girl finally goes, we sit through a long, silent montage, set in half light, of family and friends coming over for the funeral, followed by a long preaching from the vaguely separatist teachings of the Reverend Charles Willingham (played by a truly mesmerizing Troy Hogan). And after about 45 minutes of setup, we finally get to the meat of the story.

It comes in a note left by the dead woman. The most successful child, granddaughter Marta Henderson (Jordyn Lorenz), arrives home from college and finds a poem left by her grandmother expressing a desire to be cremated and have her ashes scattered over Africa. Trouble is, as one character puts it, cremation's "not customary, not for black folk." So the good and beautiful Marta must struggle with her entire family to get them to abide by Grandma's wishes.

And what a family it is. This stage full of clowns would be any serious girl's nightmare. There's Uncle Otis (played with sharp timing by Broderick Jones), a middle-aged fellow who's terrified of dead people. Cousin Denise (Aziza Anderson) wears expensive clothes and drives a fancy car, but she can't afford any of it. Self-serving Aunt Roella (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) has an opinion about everything. And all of them think Marta's a little bit full of herself, coming home with her college education bought and paid for by dead Granny's money.

But smart Marta's pretty sure of herself. She sets about making the arrangements in spite of them all — after all, Grandma made her executor of her will. The other family troubles weave in and out. Isaac finally confronts his wife about his "needs," and the fact that she's been in too bad of a mood to take care of them. He spits out a long and frankly strange speech about who's the king and who's the queen of the house. Young Martin comes up with a scheme called Ashes to Africa — he'll take a whole bunch of urns at once to the "motherland" and cut the costs. And we learn why cousin Denise is such a loser (it's all her crazy mother's fault).

Most of this feels patched together, and worse, some feels like a rehashing of stereotypes (some of which go all the way back to Amos 'n' Andy). But that didn't seem to bother the audience the night I saw the show. There's some laugh-out-loud humor and even a few fleeting moments of moving drama. Winifred Sowell's taupe and rust-colored set is admirable, and many of the performances are strong. In fact, director Eileen J. Morris and her cast do about as well as any group could with Southers's script. But what's needed most is a sharp pair of scissors to cut this long play down to the sitcom it should be.


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