Best Be Getting Home

Like the old adage about good campers who can start a fire with only three matchsticks, the M Ensemble Company has struck a full blaze with Home, a production crackling with inventiveness that defies its low-budget parameters with combustible theater talent. Samm-Art Williams' drama-in-poetry about a young Southern farmer who loses his love and nearly his life to the big city has only three actors and a defiantly simple story arc. But this troupe is so supple there's no doubt the Ensemble could stage, oh, a Twelfth Night in its tiny storefront space that would be more thoughtful and original than almost anything shown at the Coconut Grove Playhouse or the Florida Stage this past season.

Not that anyone needs them to do the Bard. The 28-year-old Ensemble (the M stands for "Magic, mystery, movement") has been staging works with African-American themes since they moved into a former warehouse in Liberty City in the early '70s and produced works by local playwrights. The company made its home at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center from 1975 to 1986, then moved to the Bakehouse Art Complex, where it stayed through 1991, producing such acclaimed but rare-in-South Florida works as George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum and Lonnie Edler III's Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. Home, which the Negro Ensemble Company premiered in its New York studio in the late '70s before transferring it to Broadway, is the M Ensemble's first show in its new space, nestled into a strip mall in North Miami.

That the theater is not on the list of most often mentioned South Florida cultural institutions is our loss. It took me a year to find M Ensemble, and now that I have, I'm happily recommending it as an alternative to South Florida's commercial theaters that seemingly choose works because they'll offend the least number of subscribers. M Ensemble has lasted nearly 30 years by doing the plays it felt were important to the community or ignored by other theaters. Sure, I wish they had an upscale venue, but given the choice between comfortable seats and discomforting theater experiences, I'll take the basics of good acting and directing over a big-budget set or plush auditorium anytime.

It's nice to report that Home, despite its 20-year-old shelf life, has also aged remarkably well. Set primarily in North Carolina in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the drama is timeless in the true sense of the word. References to the Vietnam War and Quaaludes don't date it, although other references -- Saturday-night fish fries, jump rope chants, and '70s fashions -- give the story a palpable cultural specificity.

At its center is Cephus Miles, a poor black farmer in a town called Cross Roads, who is in love with local girl Pattie Mae Wells. The story, told in sinuous flashbacks, recounts how Cephus' life changes when Pattie Mae goes off to college in Richmond, Virginia, then marries a lawyer and decides not to return to Cross Roads. Long before we learn of this important development, however, we perceive that Cephus' life is infused with sadness.

When he is still a young man, the grandfather and uncle who raised him die, and Cephus is left alone, searching for God. But God, it seems, is nowhere to be found. In fact, "He took a vacation to the beaches of Miami, while I'm stuck in the hot tobacco fields," Cephus reports. This doesn't stop Cephus. In one of the play's many comically expressionistic tacks, he tries to reach God by phone. Later a voice tells Cephus, "Don't you call God, he'll call you."

As it happens Cephus hears many voices throughout the play. The drama's secondary roles are played by two women, Tara Reid (who portrays Pattie Mae, among others) and Shirley Richardson (an M Ensemble cofounder). Together they embody an entire army of people -- Sunday school teachers, neighbor children, bus drivers, drug dealers, jazz musicians, welfare clerks, a conjure woman, and so on -- who cross paths with Cephus over the years.

The two women also play a kind of Greek chorus. Sometimes their voices reflect Cephus' struggles with his conscience. That's the case when Cephus has to decide whether to take his collection money to church with him on Sunday morning or to step over to the graveyard where he can roll dice with other gamblers on the flat surfaces of the raised vaults.

Other times the voices provide a soundtrack to Cephus' life, replete with gospel tunes and poetry improvised from cultural touchstones and locomotive sounds. One recurring voice urges Cephus to leave Cross Roads, hop a train, and take it to the city.

"Clickety clack, clickety clack," it says. "The Midnight Special and the Shoo Fly/Take this country boy to the promised land."

No one will be surprised to learn that the urban landscape that lures and seduces Cephus with its flash does not turn out to be the promised land. Or that Cephus eventually returns to Cross Roads, where, it turns out, God may have been on vacation but did arrange a nice surprise for the farmer.

No, the power of Home comes from its sweet retelling of now-eternal themes: the widening divide between rural and urban values; communities that are destroyed when individuals are separated from their homes or leave because the land can't give them all they need. "I can't grow fat and old and slow breeding babies in a dusty old farmhouse," Pattie Mae tells her Cross Roads friends. "The socioeconomic standards are no longer to my liking."

Williams' nostalgia-drunk dialogue remakes this familiar story into something that's fresh and new, full of affectionate images. In one aside, Cephus tells us about a second cousin who learns from watching her pet rooster intimidate the family dog that "this was a sign from God that short people had permission to beat up on large people." Later, as Cephus winds his way back to Cross Roads, Williams has his chorus point out that although the bus passes tenements and slums, on this night the travelers' perception of the world is rosy, because it's Christmas Eve.

In broad comic strokes, the playwright paints the activity within the bus itself. "Like a shoebox full of chickens," is how Cephus describes it, noting that "the Greyhound bus is a Negro institution," overflowing with crying babies, smelly feet, and ne'er-do-wells offering passengers drinks of "gin and beer." As for Cephus himself, nervous to return after 13 years away, the Santa Claus-like bus driver exhorts, "Don't worry how you look, just get on board."

You'll get on board, too, after sitting through just a few minutes of Home. Though technically confined on a set made of $50 worth of hardware (a wooden fence defines the perimeter of the performance space, where the only furniture is Cephus' front-porch rocking chair and a few boxes moved around to suggest other objects), the production easily lends itself to the audience's imagination. Director Jerry Maple, Jr. moves his three-person cast with a sophisticated choreography of comings and goings, costume changes, and transformations of age and sex.

Although both Reid and Richardson are deft and appealing performers, the show belongs to Nathan Andrew. As Cephus he never flags from delivering a performance in a role that's as physically demanding as it is emotionally authentic. He's an old man and a young man, a hipster ("I am... so cool"), a farmer down on his luck, a jailbird, and a free spirit, all in the space of two hours. For a theatergoer looking to be transported out of the day-to-day, Andrew's acting is an open door.

Written by Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Jerry Maple, Jr. Starring Nathan Andrew, Tara Reid, and Shirley Richardson. Through June 27. M Ensemble, 12320 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami, 305-895-8955.

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Robin Dougherty