In their efforts to capitalize on the holidays -- think family-size ticket sales -- artistic theater directors across the city dig through their dusty shelves looking for some sort of show that will warm the heart and rake in the dough. Sometimes these efforts work. But more often than not, the resulting song-and-dance comes off as lame, artless and just plain silly. Bah humbug indeed.
Take, for example, the Ensemble Theatre's production of Praise the Lord and Raise the Roof. Celeste Bedford-Walker's relatively short morality play, about the dangers of racism and excessive self-righteousness, focuses on the congregation of a small African-American church. Like some broadly written TV sitcom, the churchgoing characters are one wacky bunch. There's Ma Lennox (LaTrina L. Rice), the old, uptight, Cadillac-driving, fancy-hat-wearing, string-bean-thin matriarch who declares she doesn't need a man; she's a "bride of Christ." Sister Gates (Regina Hearne) is a big-bottomed, man-loving, loud-mouthed, oft-married pain who can't keep her hands off church deacon Brother Wright (D. Deshon Marcelous), who "is fat, 40 and still lives at home with his mother." And then there's Brother and Sister Potts (Brandon M. Grant and Aisha Ussery), newlyweds who dote on each other, even though she's a nag and he's a henpecked yes-honey man. The list of oddballs goes on and on, like some never-ending loop from UPN.
As directed by Harold J. Haynes, these cartoon characters cavort about the stage full of exaggerated, oversize gestures, constantly finding themselves at odds with their church doctrine. The good Christians argue over such things as whether they should let a poor white man into their graces. They outwardly forgive two addicts who try to rob the congregation but don't trust them for anything.
But most of all, there's a lot of bickering over that most ancient of conflicts, the struggle between women and men. Sister Gates gives interesting advice on to how to catch a man. "A man is like God," she says. "Sometimes you've got to praise him." When the men return from a weekend retreat, the women barely contain themselves as they scamper out to the bus, shouting, "Praise the Lord, the men are back!"
What they don't yet realize is that the men have changed. Over the weekend the manly side of the congregation has discovered its "African roots," which apparently means little more than wearing dashikis and telling the women, "What's wrong with us men is you women!" Brother Wright dances African-style while the men sing a tune that's basically one line repeated ad nauseam. After turning to the women and singing about the failures of Eve, the "enlightened" men harmonize, "Y'all ain't right, y'all ain't right, y'all ain't right," over and over and over. Designed to be amusing, the tune (written and composed by Haynes and musical director Sammie L. Ammons) has to rate as one of the single most offensive moments offered up by any local theater over the past two years.
But even worse is the inane preaching that goes on when the congregation learns a lesson about bigotry through an unbelievable plot twist at the end of the script. "We realize now, there's no place for prejudice in our congregation," say the churchgoers.
As we reach the end of a millennium, painfully aware that racism and the resulting violence are still with us, appearing in the grocery store, the bank loan office, our justice system, on television, on most every corner of our daily lives, such simplistic and reductive statements about prejudice fall flat and do nothing to uplift the soul, during the Christmas season or any time of the year.
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