Almost 40 years after M Ensemble's latest show premiered off-Broadway, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men still offers a powerfully rich portrayal of a disenfranchised African-American family in crisis. But Lonne Elder III's classic tale also projects such a clichéd, outdated, and stereotypical image of black men that it begs the question: What do we gain from its revival? The play is set in a dingy, empty barber shop and its adjoining back room in Harlem during the '50s. The cast of seven is led by the gregarious Jerry Maple Jr. as patriarch Russell Parker. While the jobless, aging father daydreams of his lost youth, his two no-account sons thieve and loaf. Daughter Adele the lone female and provider toils in a dead-end office job with a hand-on-hips defiance. The men's struggle for survival ultimately leads them to smooth-talking con man Mr. Blue Haven played by the appropriately sinister yet charismatic Herman McGloun and a career in bootlegging and the numbers racket. Although the foolish yet lovable characters are at times inconsistent and their motives questionable, the entertaining players shift with polished ease between Elder's often intense narrative and hilariously comical interludes, which are provided mainly by Keith Wade as William Jenkins. But the tragedy that befalls the troupe, staged in a harrowing curtain line, falls oddly flat. Critics labeled Ceremonies an instant classic following its release, largely because it wove the era's most prevalent issues into the plot. Although most of the principal conflicts may no longer be relevant, others such as the integral role of the family remain as significant as they were four decades ago. Only certain things withstand the test of time. (Through March 12 at M Ensemble, 12320 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami. Call 305-895-0335, or visit www.themensemble.com.)
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By Staff Writers
King Hedley II: This is August Wilson's last work in his epic nine-play cycle that recorded the 20th-century African-American experience. Its hero is not a reigning monarch but an ex-con living in 1985 Pittsburgh who has served a seven-year jail sentence for manslaughter. As his victim's cousin prowls the city streets seeking revenge, the title character tries desperately to escape his past and make a dishonest buck selling dubiously acquired refrigerators. However, unable to throw off the shackles of his inheritance and trapped by economic circumstance, King is ultimately driven to robbery. No matter how hard King struggles to resist his ancestral burden, Wilson's emotionally charged plot implies that the odds are so heavily stacked against the black urban poor that their choices are severely limited. In a wonderfully impassioned speech at the end of the first act, King cries, "I know which way the wind blows, and it don't blow my way." Hedley's host of solid performances makes this play consistently entertaining despite its three-hour run time. (Through February 25 at Black Box Theater, Carrie P. Meek Senior and Cultural Center, 1300 NW 50th St., Miami. Call 866-390-4534.)
Now, if never before, with intelligent design worming its way through academia, we could really use a good evolution play, one that looks at the natural history of man in the way that Copenhagen looked at nuclear physics and Proof looked at mathematics. But even with its promising title, Melanie Marnich's Cradle of Man isn't it. The "Cradle of Man" reference is to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania's Rift Valley, where paleontologists have been discovering hominid after hominid link between man and ape since the mid-20th Century. The richness of that scientific legacy, however, isn't to be revealed in the play. Instead, in a Dar es Salaam hotel, two American couples a paleoanthropologist and her husband and two married relief workers cross paths in a tiresome evening of Love Boat-style adultery. Scientists meeting up with missionaries is a cool premise. Is an intriguing science-versus-religion debate in store? Nope. Instead, Cradle of Man uses scientific metaphors to talk ponderously about love and infidelity it's full of missing links, except the ones we care about. Even with its occasionally clever exchanges, Cradle is clunky, with lots of misspent and misconceived emotion that make you lose faith in its navigation long before it ends. (Through March 5 at Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Call 561-585-3433.)