Woman to Woman

Too often, the term "black theater" conjures up some sepia-toned memory of Raisin in the Sun or A Soldier's Play, works about the unavoidable oppression of poverty and ethnicity that focus on the African-American experience through the lens of the lower class.

While there's no arguing that an impoverished setting can be a legitimate expression of black culture, it's not the only legitimate expression. The acknowledgment of that is one reason why the Ensemble Theatre's current season -- which has explored the lighter, celebratory side of the black middle class -- has been so enjoyable. Now, local playwright Celeste Bedford-Walker, who has ten plays and a Kennedy Center Honor to her credit, ends that season with a suitable capper, her musical comedy Over Forty.

The play's setting is a semi-annual gathering in which four women (Gwen, recently divorced; Patricia, a successful career woman; Annie, a homemaker; and Beryl, a recently appointed judge who lives with her mother) gather to talk about the problems and profits of maturity. This could have resulted in a hopelessly maudlin self-help treatise, but Walker has turned it into a funny, insightful and terrifically energetic little play.

Perhaps the most appealing part of Walker's concept is the audience's ability to see into the private world of a room full of women. Seeing the play is something like watching a party from behind the banister -- we laugh at the characters as much as we do with them. This is especially true in the first act, where the women reminisce about their '60s childhoods, including reprising a number of golden oldies such as "Cupid." The effect is silly and sweet, in part because the Ensemble has found a gem of an actress in Helen Sanders (Annie), whose talent for comedy is expressed in her vaudevillian physical bits and her motherly "don't you dare take another step" glares. Anyone who was lucky enough to see her flip off her shoe in a moment of drunken abandon in the Ensemble's recent Miss Dessa will agree that Sanders is cast well as Over Forty's facilitator and spiritual center.

The show's music is a blend of familiar tunes and original lyrics by Weldon Irvine, the best of which is the title song, which includes the lines, "I'm over 40, and there's so much more of me / I never thought I'd see the day I couldn't fit into an eight." Beyond middle-aged spread, Walker's play touches on divorce, childbearing, career and marriage. Where the first act focuses on memories of youth, the second deals with the more serious side of turning 40, including a lengthy discussion of men. "All they want from us," Beryl says, "is food, sex and the remote control."

In some ways, Walker has created characters who have one central facet, wound them up and let them spin. Patricia (Cheray Martin) is beautiful, slender and wildly successful. Martin plays her as a fastidious beauty queen, ever conscious of her posture and bearing and heartbroken that, at 41, she's having trouble getting pregnant. The show's other beauty, Gwen (Donna Wilkerson), was a '60s rebel who dropped out of school to champion the civil rights movement only to have her husband leave her 20 years later. Wilkerson has a rich voice and an exotic look that complement one of Over Forty's bittersweet moments -- her solo rendition of "We Shall Overcome," which she sings in memory of all she has lost to end the first act with a persevering sorrow. Joyce Anastasia as Beryl rounds out the group as one more comic presence. Her petite form is always in action -- jumping up on a chair to dance to the oldies and stumbling over an explanation of why she can't leave her mother.

Director Vernell Lillie does a notable job of making the Ensemble's small stage seem big, and Over Forty's musical numbers take full advantage of every bit of square footage. Phyllis Gooden-Young's choreography features a series of lively crisscross patterns and '60s dance iconography such as the synchronized backup dancing of girl groups. The last three productions at the Ensemble have included dancing, and I hope that doesn't change -- the choreography springs up organically, and the message is clear: when life gets you blue, the only thing to do is sing and dance a little.

This play's journey is one that includes a formal relinquishing of youth, a moment the actors handle with reverence and comedy. Beryl, the character who counsels all the others into giving up their childish safety nets, is the one least likely to let go of her own, and her romping gives the audience the opportunity for relief from heavy-hitting topics such as unnecessary hysterectomies (which prompts Annie to promise, "I'm goin' to the tomb with my womb") and infidelity. When the play comes full circle, the women have shared the most intimate details of their lives. The matching of vulnerability with comedy seems to be Walker's special talent as a writer, and it's one this production capitalizes on.

In the Ensemble's lobby hangs a large photo from A Soldier's Play. It's a rare shot, because it captures a genuine moment between actors and gives the viewer a sense of what that production, and indeed the play itself, must be about. The picture is a good symbol for the Ensemble, a company that consistently produces work that speaks the truth with an artistry seldom accomplished in slicker venues. Over Forty is on the lighthearted end of truth, but the level of performance is high, and the message isn't bloated with earnestness. As an extra bonus, viewers of this play have the opportunity to catch one of the last two works the Ensemble will perform in their cozy little house before moving next season to Main Street.

Over Forty plays through July 21 at Mid Town Art Center, 3414 La Branch at Holman, 520-0055.

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Megan Halverson