By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Mama Turner has died, and she hasn’t been tucked away for more than a couple hours before the fighting between her two grown daughters begins. Her son tries to be the buffer, but old wounds still itch and burn, and aged Papa is too senile to understand what’s going on.
What’s going on is gentrification in the African-American neighborhood where the Turners built a family, raised their kids, watch their grandchildren — and then their great-granddaughter — grow. Some of the later generations also were raised in the house, the last house standing on a block that developers need.
What’s also going on beyond the plot of the sweet new play The Repast is the second Philly Urban Theatre Festival, brainchild of theater artist Kash Goins, at the Adrienne Theatre through Oct. 9. Goins, a Philadelphian, ran a similar festival in New York, and produces plays year-round that deal with the American black experience and minority communities in general. He seeks new work for the festival, whose productions range from one-nighters to week-long runs.
The Repast, by young playwright Bryana Michelle, a West Philadelphia native, runs through Sunday. Other festival entries include Kareem Rogers’ Fair Son, about a former civil rights activist who distances himself from black culture, set in Philadelphia; Davon Williams’ The Boy Who Sees, about a mother and her blind son; and the rarely staged The Slave, by poet/playwright Amiri Baraka, in production by Iron Age Theatre.
It begins a run in the festival, then moves to Norristown’s Centre Theater, the company’s home site.
Also on the festival 13-show roster are Donja R. Love’s How to Kill a Child and a Demon, about a family’s struggles in the aftermath of a crime, and a play by Goins — a one-act called “Tonight?,” billed as a psychological thriller, in which he will perform.
The festival began Monday with a one-nighter called Lion (El Leon), a comedy in Spanish and English with puppetry and music, by Chris Davis. The Repast is its first extensive run, a facile family play with a cast of 14, all of them on the mark. I was impressed by Michelle’s smooth scripting, which gives the many characters personalities so distinct we can’t possible confuse them even when they’re all onstage at once. Standouts are Dionne Stone and Karen Waller-Martin as the squabbling daughters and Brett Roman Williams, a grandson of the deceased woman.
The cast delivers the natural conversation of a real family dealing with life’s ins and outs, with an aged parent (Damien Wallace) as the old man providing some comic relief. The only overdrawn character is a buffoonish real estate developer (Gary Lime).
Kamal Rashad’s staging moves things nicely, but t
he lengthy scene changes disrupt the production’s rhythm, making it seem longer than its two-hour-plus running time. And the uncredited lighting design directs one stage light into the eyes of the audience to the right of the Adrienne’s mainstage theater. That’s where I sat, thinking I was about to get the third degree any minute.
The show is preceded by a 10-minute scene from another of Michelle’s plays — a terrible idea given the length of the evening and the play we came for, which makes the snippet seem an inferior work. It’s unfair to Michelle to have an out-of-context full scene float into the theater as a curtain raiser.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For shows, times and ticket prices for the Philly Urban Theatre Festival, www.putf.org.