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Kinda Blue

This season has seen its share of family dramas that playwrights keep reinventing to good theatrical effect. One recent incarnation is Charles Randolph-Wright's moody, engaging comedy/ drama Blue, a semi-autobiographical account of one wealthy black family's domestic disturbances, a tale that spans several decades.

The story is narrated by Reuben Clark (Jacques C. Smith), a young, thoughtful man who's still working through some long-brewing personal conflicts. In a direct-address structure similar to The Glass Menagerie, Reuben takes us back to the late 1970s in South Carolina, where his family has prospered by running a busy funeral home in a small town for several generations. There he introduces his childhood self, Younger Reuben (Jovun Fox), and together they observe the Clark family. Steady patriarch Sam Clark Jr. (Willie C. Carpenter) is a hard-working, easygoing professional who enjoys stylish suits and a tall whiskey after work. While his business hums along, he has his hands full with his outspoken, elegant wife, Peggy (Elizabeth Van Dyke), a former Chicago fashion model who conducts a one-woman campaign to bring art and culture to Sam's sleepy hometown. Peggy's penchant for expensive clothes, exotic foreign foods, and, especially, the music of a jazz crooner named Blue Williams leaves Sam bewildered, but he's so in love with his wife, he'll go along with anything she wants.

Not so their two sons. Restless teenager Sam III favors Ohio Players' funk, combs his hair out into an Afro, dates a series of wild "country" girls, and is in a constant war of wills with his domineering mother. But Peggy demands propriety and stylish comportment and simply will not tolerate anything that smacks of lower-class behavior. Meanwhile, gangly Young Reuben, an aspiring trumpet player, takes the passive road like his father and complies with Peggy's demands, secretly chafing under her control. There is also conflict between Peggy and her mother-in-law, Tillie, the only family member who openly challenges Peggy's authority.

Into this uneasy household barges Sam III's latest squeeze, LaTonya, who sports hot pants, platform shoes, and a voice that could shatter glass five miles off. Naturally, Peggy is aghast, but tables turn when she discovers LaTonya is as wild about Blue's music as she is. Soon Peggy has taken LaTonya under her wing and shoots her into a makeover, with stylish silk clothing and a brand-new 'do. Peggy is thrilled at her effect on LaTonya, but her satisfaction is short-lived when her protégé meets Blue Williams himself and runs off with him to Chicago, a turn of events that Peggy, perhaps out of jealousy, cannot forgive.

These comic complications are really only an extended prelude to what follows, as the family's story skips ahead 15 years to the 1990s. Reuben, now a dreadlocked coffeehouse owner and music producer in Seattle, comes back for a long-delayed visit to find his old world much changed. Although his parents remain steadfast, brother Sam III is now transformed into a driven man, focused on the family business, while LaTonya returns from Chicago with tales and a few secrets to reveal. Reuben's return as a conflicted adult is the real heart of this story, as he tries to come to terms with his controlling mother. No longer a compliant mama's boy, Reuben is in rebellion, wanting recognition and validation just as his brother wanted years before. But unlike Sam III, Reuben will never agree to join the Clarks' upscale conformity -- he's looking for identity, not social success.

The play is partially based on Randolph-Wright's upscale Southern background, and the role of Peggy is drawn in part from the author's own mother, which explains the detailed, realistic feel of these relationships and issues. The conflict between personal freedom and family tradition, always an haute-bourgeoisie preoccupation, is given a careful, thoughtful depiction here; the insider look at upscale black family dynamics is an interesting, implicit critique of class-blind race perception in modern America. The Clarks are most certainly self-identified as African-American, but the preoccupations of their class -- community status, financial power, the importance of appearances, a disdain for improper behavior -- chiefly motivate them.

Sheldon Epps directs with a soft, stylish hand as time, place, and memory begin to shift and blend. James Leonard Jr.'s ever-shifting set, a series of tall louvered doors, and Michael Gilliam's evanescent lighting add to the dreamy feel. Costume designer Deborah Bauer gets a number of laughs on her own with her sly array of trendy 1970s gear. The production is aided in great measure by singer/songwriter Nona Hendryx's evocative jazz and blues songs, with lyrics she co-wrote with Randolph-Wright.

Randolph-Wright does a skillful job of weaving together the several theatrical strands in this story line. In the 1970s scenes, the older Reuben functions as narrator and unseen confidant of Younger Reuben, warning the boy to look beneath the surface of family life to discover what's really going on. In the 1990s scenes, their roles reverse as the unseen Younger Reuben goads his older counterpart to finally confront long-buried mysteries. All the while, Blue's sinewy, seductive music haunts the play, as does Blue himself (Dennis Rowland); invisible to others, he serenades Peggy. Rowland, whose silky jazz crooning harks back to the late great Billy Eckstine, is a real find, a dashing stage presence with movie-star looks to match his gorgeous voice.

Van Dyke is commanding as the complicated, conflicted Peggy, charming and controlling, haughty and assured by turns. It's only in her penultimate revelation scene that perhaps Van Dyke seems a bit too assured, delivering more craft than raw emotional honesty. She's backed by a solid ensemble, several of whom have been with the show in earlier incarnations at the Pasadena Playhouse and elsewhere.

Felicia Wilson's over-the-top LaTonya is very droll, while Chris Butler is equally effective as the troubled Sam III; their character transformations that play out over the decades feel entirely plausible. Carpenter as the father, Sam Jr., and Amentha Dymally as his mother, Tillie, also add to the realistic feel of this Clark clan. The weakest links here are the two Reubens, but this can be pinned mostly on the playwright, who is more successful in setting up his characters than taking them anywhere coherent. The play relies on the Long Buried Secret to provide foreshadowing and portents, then fails to deliver much of a payoff. Sure, the truth will be told. But there's next to no consequence and certainly not much dramatic impact: This play about a family that avoids confrontation itself avoids confrontation. Like his characters, this playwright seems squeamish about facing messy emotions. The result is a thoughtful play with more style than emotional impact, melancholy and, well, kinda blue.

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Ronald Mangravite

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