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Good Human 

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ETA Creative Arts Foundation

Back in 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry's tale about a poor black family struggling to improve their lives, was one of the first steps in establishing black Americans in the public mind as human beings. The Younger family was a group of individuals, each with a different dream of success; and the dynamics between those people were characteristic of all families fighting the obstacles of poverty and prejudice in search of the Great American Dream.

By the mid-60s, comedians like Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge were succeeding still further in making blacks seem just another side of the many-faceted creature called humanity. Of course, a comedian who enjoyed great popularity among black and white audiences at the time was Bill Cosby, who told stories of his childhood--which could have been anybody's childhood. Budding transculturalism does much to explain how, circa 1966, college students in northern Wisconsin, many of whom had never seen an actual black man, could nonetheless recite entire Cosby albums.

Rob Penny's Good Black, currently playing at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, draws on the same sources of delight. It's a hugely funny play, of course, well crafted and superbly executed. But dispelling any reminders that this is a "black play" are the universality of the conflicts and the emphasis on human rather than cultural values.

The plot is simple enough: Dalejean is a woman who has managed to raise three children single-handedly on her salary as a waitress at Jake's diner. The children are troublesome--James Jr. is gung ho on the new black nationalist movement (Good Black appears to be set sometime in the mid- to late 60s), Phyllis is dating a boy from the projects, and Janet, the pesky preadolescent innocent, annoys both of them. They are a close family who love one another deeply, but this is not enough for Dalejean. She has been carrying on a long-term and quite comfortable affair with Rip, a mature and competent Vietnam vet. He is, however, considerably younger than Dalejean, and because she's a proud woman, she's reluctant to become dependent on a man who may prove as transient as the three fathers of her three children. ("A little light in a dark place--that's all I ask," she declares.)

In the weeks before Christmas, Dalejean's life becomes increasingly disordered. The lecherous Jake pressures her with his proposals--and he's not proposing marriage. Her sister Louise exhorts her to "come to Jesus." And a nymphet named Kim is bent on seducing the big-brotherly Rip. Love triumphs, however, and all problems and misunderstandings are resolved by Christmas morning, to our satisfaction and the characters'--for this is a comedy not only universal but humane. Hey, people may be funny and foolish, but they're not evil. Even dirty old Jake eventually accepts his comeuppance with reluctant grace--"I reckon I'm the only man who can put salt and pepper on disappointment," he says, "and eat it."

As Dalejean, Kemati Janice Porter is called upon to react more than to act, but she does so with the dignity and conviction of a lady who knows what she wants and will not be easily turned around. (Porter also has a nobility of countenance that transcends the amorphous looks of the younger women--this is the mature woman at her most beautiful.) Runako Jahi is not yet as confident as he might be in the role of Rip, but he nonetheless emerges as a worthy consort for the eminently deserving Dalejean. Okoro Harold Johnson brings a Redd Foxx bluster to his portrayal of Jake, but maintains an intelligent presence that makes his arguments seem sound no matter how ludicrous the arguer.

As Louise, Audrey Morgan chews up the stage like a lawn mower gone berserk--the scene in which Louise and Dalejean sing a duet in praise of the flesh and the spirit, the two getting confused in the theological tangle, is alone worth the price of admission. Jonelle Kennedy is suitably decorative and disposable as the hot-to-trot Kim, but the evening's standouts are Dalejean's children: Yvonne Dabney as Janet, Rolanda Brigham as Phyllis, and Donn Harper as James Jr. All deliver performances far more subtle in their attention to detail than the roles demand. Watch the change in Harper's face, for example, as James Jr. hesitantly offers his hand to the man who might become his stepfather, and the latter returns a "power" handshake.

The designers have created an onstage environment so lifelike it looks as if we could move into it tomorrow, right down to the iron skillet crowning Dalejean's stove. And Woodie King Jr. directs with perfect comic pacing, no easy feat since the theater seats 200 and the laughs can stop the action for several minutes at a time.

A comedy that speaks to everybody and grinds no one into the dust: it wasn't exactly the Reverend King's dream, but it's been my dream for a long time. Good Black demonstrates that its time has come.


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