February 18, 2009
Kerry Reid - Chicago Tribune Review
Playwright Lydia Diamond's sharp self-deprecating broadside against the worn-out tropes of African-American theater features a saintlike, albeit catatonic, black matriarch on a couch. This dig at the theatrical images of long-suffering black women, such as those found in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," isn't completely original with Diamond. George C. Wolfe covered similar territory in 1986's hit comedy revue "The Colored Museum" with his biting sketch, "The Last-Mama-on-the-Couch Play." But Diamond brings her own unique spin to exploding the stereotypes.
Diamond's "Stage Black," now in a world premiere with MPAACT (Maat Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre), also contains elements familiar to anyone who has followed this extraordinarily talented writer over the last several years.
As in "The Gift Horse" and "Stick Fly," Diamond's characters come out of a comfortably upper-middle-class black experience, not inner-city poverty. But in her latest, they don't save the drama for their mama or each other. They let their creator have it with both barrels, and the verbal fusillades offer side-splitting insights into the creative process and the dominant mind-set of theatrical producers in choosing what's "marketable" when it comes to black narratives onstage.
The year was 1991. A young University of Illinois co-ed packs her things and prepares for graduation day. She reflects fondly on her past four years here and remembers all of the house music, high-top fades, asymmetrical hair cuts all-nighters (studying and watching tapes of The Cosby Show and A Different World) and good times that have been her college days. The fondest memories by far? Times spent at “The Black House” dissecting our diasporadic experiences and a performing in a little play called A House Divided. Expertly produced by some young ambitious brothers with high theatre aspirations.
While rolling up her Georgia O’Keefe posters and gently putting her Guy, Stevie Wonder and Sade cassettes in an Esprit bag, she gets a call. “We’re in the car with Reggie. He says don’t move.” Moments later her dorm room is filled with Rob Goodwin (fellow future DePaul MFA grad and Uof C Theatre teacher), Bill Carroll (her English 263 – Theatre of the Black Experience instructor), and Reggie Lawrence (future Shepsu Aakhu and MPAACT head-brother-in-charge). They all talk about the potentially transformative power of theatre from an AfriKan perspective, the vital importance of breathing, the essence of being and spiritually becoming. They meet later that summer with other like minds in Chicago in an old funeral home. Not a harbinger of things to come.
Months later she finds herself in the back of a health food store on Chicago’s south side, dropping wonderful rhymes with wonderful people about blackness and beauty and culture. She stopped eating meat - temporarily. She made life-long friends. She was deep. She was essential. She was in the embryonic stages of would become what you now know as MPAACT – full seasons of culturally relevant plays and a veritable movement of theatre by us and all about us.
She returns full circle (after a short return for 2000’s The Abesha Conspiracy) to all that ever was and ever will be MPAACT. Her role as Writer in Stage Black has offered her time for reflection (What IS the state of black theater and the arts? How has her own vision changed and grown? What can we as artists do? Who do we write, act and create for? Will our best efforts, poetic dreams and deep inner thoughts make us money? And does it matter?). As a writer of children’s plays, playing a writer in this show proves a little trippy at times (hey – who’s reflecting who here?). But returning to her roots with her feet firmly grounded in all that she began with and has collected on the way, she is able to look about and feel connected and remember the whys of it all with just a glance and a deep breath or two.
Nearly twenty years later (cough) some of the faces have changed, but the spirit remains the same. The seeds of poetry and music and rhythm and messages and community and life and love continue to grow strong through everyone involved. Though she now enjoys her chicken wings and turkey burgers, and though she now has her own children’s theater projects to manage and grow she still breathes and lives those seeds through all of her work, which will always belong to all of us.
Tua-u and write on . . .