Nothing kills good drama like earnestness. In less competent hands, it trips up playwrights by smothering good intentions, blinding them to obvious structural faults. It can make characters sound like placards, saying more than they would know. It opens the door for bumpy drama, spreading its ideas too thin. It tells rather than shows.
Playwright Joshua Ford falls headlong into all these traps in his obviously earnest The City of Good Abode, a co-production of the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center and the Ensemble Theatre. It has good intentions written all over it, as if the entire play were published in italics. (I believe this is the first full production of Ford's play, which was honored as a Top Ten Play by the 2015 Jewish Plays Project and was a semifinalist for the 2014 Eugene O'Neill National Playwright's Conference.)
There is rich material to be mined, for sure – the Civil Rights movement, strikes and riots, racist politicians, sweet Southern ladies who chair the Cotton Celebration, stalwart working men who fight for justice, members of the clergy who march for it, a scrappy New York labor lawyer who'll negotiate for it. Overarching everything is the specter of Martin Luther King. He's heard in speeches, his image projected against the background. His offstage assassination is deftly handled with a shocking single gun shot and a freeze frame of red. Ironically, this overt theatricality is the play's only true moment of drama.
We're in Memphis, Tennessee, the “city of good abode,” as its citizens like to say in admiration of the town's charm, history, civility. Led by firebrand O.T. Jones (a fervent Derrick Brent), the sanitation workers are on strike. The lowest of the low, the black men have had enough of stagnant wages and horrendous working conditions. They want justice, to be treated as their protest signs proclaim, I Am a Man. The Reverend Lawson (a staunch Curtis Von) is on their side, but wants no truck with violence.
Newly elected Mayor Loeb (a honeyed Mark Mendelsohn), suffused with political ambition, is vehemently opposed to the strike. Hardhearted as any pharaoh, he will not be moved, he has the law on his side, and this protest is patently illegal. There will be no unionizing on his watch. His wife Mary (equally honeyed Lydia Meadows) is unhappy that the present has intruded on her memories of the past. Cracks are forming. Perhaps if a united clergy stands with the strikers, the mayor will relent. Lawson asks his friend Rabbi Wax (the always reliable Carl Masterson) to join the cause. Surprisingly, he equivocates.
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Lawson has a final card, a real ace. He makes a call to King, who's now on his Poor People's Campaign. Come to Memphis and join us, then Mayor Loeb will have to relent. King arrives in the midst of a riot started by racist agitators and fed by the nascent black power movement. He's quickly taken to the Lorraine Motel. It was in Memphis that he delivered his prophetic final speech, “I've Been to the Mountaintop” at the Mason Temple. The next day, King would be dead.
This is history, ripe for drama, rich in character and action, noble in intention. Ford bungles the opportunity in almost every scene, overplaying the obvious, downplaying the subtle. He is not helped by director Rachel Hemphill Dickson's underwhelming direction, which consists of characters moving their own boxes upon which to sit, even during their own scenes, or fidgeting in the background stuffing envelopes or pouring coffee, mostly getting in the way of the scene at hand. In a lovely touch, though, Dickson has the National Guard troops, called in by Mayor Loeb to intimidate the protesters and raise his political capital, stand in mute testimony in the living rooms of the Loebs and Lawsons during their final personal dramas.
The City of Good Abode needs tightening, a good red pencil, swifter delivery, and a keener eye for detail. The bones are there awaiting discovery. But, oh, those damned good intentions. Earnestness will get you every time if you don't watch out.
The City of Good Abode continues at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 14 and 3 p.m. Sunday, September 15 at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood. For information, call 713-729-3200 or visit erjcchouston.org or ensemblehouston.org. $24 - $36.