By Patsy Isenberg
The African American playwright/director/actor, Douglas Turner Ward, wrote two award winning plays in 1965, “Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence.” Those two one-act plays, biting satires with timely themes, were offered by The New McCree Theatre on Feb. 22-24. The plays, always performed as a pair, according to McCree executive director Charles Winfrey, were directed by Billie Scott Lindo.
In their commentary on the relationships between blacks and whites – particularly with an eye toward power and interdependence, the plays offered surprises and some bold and telling gestures, including the black cast in the second play portraying flummoxed white people and appearing in whiteface.
They were a great choice for Black History Month in 2018 in the Age of Trump.
The first one was “Happy Ending,” at first seemingly a misnomer, which included four actors. The action takes place in the Harlem apartment of Ellie, a maid who works for a wealthy white family. First we see Ellie (Sherita Swanigan) and her sister Vi (Jasmine Byrd), who also works for the family, sitting at the kitchen table crying uncontrollably. It’s soon revealed that their employers may be getting a divorce and will probably be “breaking up housekeeping.” The sisters fear their jobs and futures are in jeopardy. Their young nephew, Junie (Derrick Washington), comes in and can’t understand their extreme reaction. He makes a case for more dignity and pride from the two.
This goes on for quite a while when finally the whole reason for the sisters’ concern is revealed which brings tears to Junie as well. But no spoilers to be given here. Soon Ellie’s partner Arthur (John Vincent) arrives and all four sit at the kitchen table sobbing, outrageously. The audience is almost brought to tears, but with laughter. Being that times have changed so much as far as what’s expected of employees and employers, some of what ends up being revealed might not be a laughing matter today, but it sure worked in “Happy Ending.”
In the end the point was made that the wealthy white family had a different set of needs than these four regular black people and, in the end, turnabout can be fair play. And funny. This was excellent work by all of the members. The actors were great and the directing and set (Lindo’s design, built by Barbara Armstrong, Derrick Washington and Dwayne Towns) were also good.
“Day of Absence”
After a short intermission, with minor changes to the set, “Day of Absence” began. This one had quite a large cast so some of the actors played multiple parts. On opening we see two men from a southern town sitting along the street talking and doing what seems normal for them one morning. Cleverly, the two men are in whiteface. This was a bold move by Ward in the 60s, but it works quite well to illustrate the story he’s telling here. The actors are black and in almost every scene they are all wearing whiteface. That is because the main plot point here is that all of the black residents in the town have somehow disappeared. And not only are all these characters in whiteface, they are acting stupid and foolish and panicky in the way that white actors portrayed their black compatriots in the past when wearing blackface was acceptable in theater.
One of the men, Clem (in a standout performance by Dwayne Towns) begins to get the feeling that something’s not quite right that day. He keeps trying to convince his friend Luke (Daniel Lopez) that he’s onto something. He just isn’t sure what it is. Eventually they both come to realize that all the black folks are gone. After that, the town goes crazy trying to figure out how they are going to get by without all the help from the people that are missing.
There’s a very funny scene of a couple (Chris Young and Alina Oliver) waking up to their crying baby without the help of their black maid. In another comical scene, three “switchboard operators” (Whitney Frierson, Jasmine Byrd and Barbara Armstrong) are trying to keep up with all the emergency calls caused by the crisis. Then a lot of the action is focused on the white mayor (John Vincent) and his white associates trying to get through their day without someone to shine their shoes, unload boxes, mop the floors, take care of the babies and so forth. One of the mayor’s assistants, Jackson (Cassandria Harris), was especially funny running back and forth trying to calm the mayor down and keep up with his demands. Another standout was the Courier (Whitney Frierson) with her wildly funny gestures and attitude.
They keep trying to figure out a way to get some black people to show up so the work can get done. They try hospitals but the black folks all seem to be comatose, even the mothers who went in to have babies have “gone to sleep.” They try the jail, but those in charge can’t explain their disappearance. Everyone’s at a loss to explain any of it. But the whole day is a disaster for the town. The residents soon begin to picket and a news reporter comes to the scene. But the next morning the black people trickle back. Rastus (Chris Young) was the first and he’s at a loss to even remember that this had happened. Luke looks out into the audience and remarks that, “yes, they’re back.” Perfect.
“Day of Absence” was well done too, offering good acting and lots of surreal humor while still driving its serious point home. But this one might have benefited from a little editing of Ward’s scenes – something the director obviously would not be in a position to do. The dialog at the mayor’s office and during the picketing scene went into what felt like too much detail and got a little confusing. Still, both plays offered thought-provoking and entertaining satire with serious underpinnings.
On his introduction of the plays to the audience, McCree Executive Director Winfrey offered background on the playwright and a little history. He noted Douglas Turner Ward was one of the founders of the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967. That company’s alumni include many of the most talented and well-known black performers of today. Actors including Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson, Angela Bassett, Lawrence Fishburne, Moses Gunn and Esther Rolle found opportunities early in their careers that may not have been offered at that time if it weren’t for the work of Ward—yet another reason the two plays were a great choice for the theater in a month observing African-American struggles and celebrating accomplishments that have not always come easy.
EVM staff writer and reviewer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.